Thu, Apr 7, 2022

Time for Companies to Reconsider Health in the Era of Pandemics

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted why corporations no longer consider health just a problem for the government and healthcare providers or a business opportunity for health-related goods and services. The health of employees, clients, consumers and the surrounding community can have a dramatic and unpredictable effect on supply, demand and productivity.

In recognition of World Health Day on April 7, the World Health Organization is asking each of us three questions. Are we able to re-imagine a world…

  • …where clean air, water and food are available to all?
  • …in which economies are focused on health and well-being?
  • …where cities are more livable, and people have better control over their health and the health of the planet?

How Will Corporations Answer These Questions?

Large corporations are increasingly expected to report about their contributions and impact on environment, social and governance (ESG) issues. These reports have become essential to private, institutional and government investors who seek to demonstrate that their investments are, at a minimum, not increasing corruption, climate change or social injustice. For large, multi-national companies, ESG reports are now as essential to investors as financial reports.

While commonly used metrics for ESG include some indicators relevant to health, there’s recently been a call to add an “H” to ESG. Adding an “H” has three definable benefits to corporations.

First, it benefits business operations. The risk of pandemics is growing rapidly. In the past 20 years, three coronavirus epidemics (SARS, MERS and COVID-19) have greatly disrupted business operations in multiple regions of the world. Just as they do for financial or political risks, businesses must have systems and plans for mitigating the risk of these high-consequence events.

Second, it benefits the places in which corporations work. Like climate change, preventing, preparing for and responding to pandemics requires an “all of society” response. By investing in or helping to invest in activities that reduce the threat of pandemics and enhance resilience, corporations demonstrate their value to communities.

And third, health investments benefit the people corporations rely on most. Employees increasingly choose to work for organizations that value their mental and physical health. A corporation that invests in the health and well-being of its employees will be more likely to attract and retain top-tier talent. Customers increasingly expect to do business in facilities that reduce their risk of acquiring an infection or worsening their health. Even interventions with probably little public health value, such as sanitizing wipes for grocery carts, are widely appreciated by customers.

This year’s World Health Day specifically focuses on clean air, water and food for all, and how economies and communities can promote these. Considering the ongoing threat of COVID-19 variants that are more infectious than the original strain, large businesses should be thinking about how they can improve air quality and circulation in their workplaces and retail locations.

The White House recently held a high-profile event describing new standards to be released from the federal government about how to clean the air to reduce infections, allergies, and pollution and improve worker productivity. Additionally, 33% of the world lacks access to clean water in their homes. If corporations have business operations in one of these impacted areas, what is being done to ensure employees and customers have water free from infections and dangerous pollutants?

Food safety also continues to be a critical concern for countries, especially with dramatic increases in drug-resistant infections – so-called “superbugs”- transmitted by food. How much do employers know about the food served in cafeterias or purchased by employees? If your company operates in food production or hospitality, what can your company do to reduce the use of antibiotics, trans-fats, sodium and other agents that are potentially harmful to individuals and communities? Corporations should consider the increased levels of production that come with workers, their families and their communities that are in better health from cleaner air, food, and water.

Corporations should also start considering whether their existing leadership has the skills needed to address these complex issues involving employees, customers and the surrounding community. Several companies have hired chief medical officers to think strategically and operationally about health across the enterprise—from dynamic, evidence-based policies related to COVID-19 risk to the much longer-term challenge of identifying and mitigating health-related risks at all facilities and communities in which they operate.

The pandemic has disrupted the workplace at every level. There is no better time than World Health Day to re-think the intersection between health and business.

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