lessons health

Time is of the essence. The coronavirus and economic crises have created an urgent, unprecedented opportunity for CEOs and corporate leaders to put purpose-driven leadership and stakeholder capitalism to the forefront. Never before have we had to be so concerned with our own health, the health of our loved ones, and the health of our employees all at the same time, at length and in a highly uncertain environment.

COVID-19 in all its havoc, has yielded an unprecedented, public relations-positive education campaign of sorts — informing the community about what public health is (now they get it) and how all of society has a role to play. This includes lessons and planning for a likely future pandemic 2.0. It has also been widely reported that people who have existing co-morbidities (such as diabetes, lung disease, obesity), the elderly, and people from areas of social disadvantage are at heightened risk of worse COVID-19 outcomes. Hopefully, this translates to an increased focus on, and investment in, preventative health — a traditionally underfunded position in many countries.

Taking care of the environment, including by remediating their environmental footprints, is regarded as good and even standard practice for business and can boost reputation and improve staff retention and attraction. The Sustainability and Health Initiative for NetPositive Enterprise (SHINE), at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, helps corporations quantify the ways they contribute — not just to doing less harm (footprint), but also to ways that contribute to a healthier, more sustainable world (handprint). The combination of these two concepts is called NetPositive, because the goal is for an organisation’s handprint to be greater than its footprint.

However, it’s worth noting that until now, the human and health impact of business activity has received far less attention and typically defaults to traditional work, health and safety activity, absenteeism, and compliance reporting. If business was asked about its role in public health in a pre-COVID-19 world, it may have said that health and wellbeing is not its priority; that it is the domain of others such as health professionals, healthcare organisations and non-government organisations.

Protection of human rights and anti-discrimination are also well established in many company policies, however health and wellbeing is rarely embedded strategically across an organisation. This is the opposite of the way companies regard environmental impacts. Reporting is lacklustre on employee, consumer, supply chain or community wellbeing compared to the extensive reporting on environmental footprints. Yet there is increasing evidence that the treatment of employees (as one example) brings shared-value.

Just as procurement decisions rightly include attention to modern slavery and anti-discrimination practices, what if there was a “health and wellbeing” supply chain criteria? Boards could be asked, “Tell us how you treat your people and stakeholders from a health and wellbeing lens.” Would such an approach shift behaviour towards a focused and sought-out caring culture, especially in a post-COVID-19 world?

“Tell us how you treat your people and stakeholders from a health and wellbeing lens.”

State of the nation

  • 80.4yrs Life expectancy of male born in 2016
  • 84.6yrs Life expectancy of female born in 2016
  • 4 in 5 Australians aged 15+ rate health as excellent, very good or good
  • Leading cause of death – Male: heart disease; Female: dementia/Alzheimer’s
  • 50% of Australians have a chronic condition (responsible for most deaths)
  • 63% of Australians 18+ are overweight or obese
  • 45% of Australians 16–85 will experience mental illness

Culture of health

The burning platform and fundamental proposition of a culture of health in business is that individuals, employers and their organisations, and governments at all levels, have a moral and dutiful obligation to contribute to addressing the health of our communities. It is no longer OK to leave it to those working within the health sector.

Chronic diseases are the leading causes of death and disability in Australia and many parts of the world. Heart disease, stroke, cancer, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, and arthritis are among the most common, costly, and preventable health problems — and all are influenced by individual, employee, community and environmental factors including the built environment.

Work in the US by Harvard professor John Quelch, using a four-pillar approach and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation action framework, promotes the concept of a Culture of Health (COH) as a business leadership imperative. The goal of the framework is to convey a holistic, integrative perspective on what it takes to achieve population health and wellbeing. Achieving this will require greater links and leadership between the worlds of business and public health, common language, standardised metrics, benchmarking, evidence-based research, and intellectual rigor. The COH action areas include:

  • Making health a shared value
  • Fostering cross-sector collaboration to improve wellbeing
  • Creating healthier, more equitable communities
  • Strengthening integration of health services and systems.

There is a silent H (health) in ESG that needs to be elevated and called out. It’s time to move health and wellbeing to board and C-Suite strategies across these four pillars. The community, public health advocates, emergency and first-responder teams will be grateful.

For more tools and resources on the COVID-19 pandemic, go to our dedicated content hub here.