Bridging the Gap Between Health and Environmental Sustainability

05/27/2015 10:44 am ET | Updated May 27, 2016
Eileen McNeely

I've been working at the intersection of health and the environment for over 25 years. While my research in this space has evolved over time, I inevitably keep coming back to the same insight: human health and the environment are undeniably and wholly dependent on each other. One cannot and does not thrive without the other.

The World Health Organization defines the environment, as it relates to health, as "all the physical, chemical, and biological factors external to a person, and all the related behaviors." Our environment consists of the nature that surrounds us, the air we breathe, our access to clean water. However, as human beings spend increasingly more time indoors -- whether at home or at work -- our indoor environments and the workplace cultures we are exposed to either improve our health or have a negative effect on it. This is why health is both a risk and an opportunity for organizations. Do nothing, and the prevalence of chronic diseases and obesity keep rising; create a healthy workplace culture, and people thrive.

Corporate sustainability has traditionally been much more focused on the physical environment, neglecting the idea that healthy workplace practices, and healthy and engaged employees, are core to a thriving, sustainable organization. While organizations are increasingly catching on to the importance of a healthy workforce, few are embracing it from within the context of sustainability. And even fewer are looking at health holistically by offering programs and workplace cultures that improve on worker well-being (as measured by mental, social, and spiritual health, and life satisfaction), not just physical health.

Never has there been a better opportunity for the business world to embrace both health and the environment in a way that serves humanity, our planet, and our organizations themselves. Believing that health is at the foundation of environmental and social sustainability, my fellow Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health colleague, Dr. Greg Norris, and I formed SHINE, the Sustainability and Health Initiative for NetPositive Enterprise within the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard Chan School.

At SHINE, we are answering the question: how can corporations measure and accelerate the ways in which they help the world become a healthier, more sustainable place? We are advancing corporate sustainability to include health of employees and a drive toward NetPositive impact, whether on health or the environment.

As human beings spend the majority of their lives in the workplace, we need better workplace structures to help them flourish and reverse the declining health in the U.S. and, increasingly, the world. We need to set a bold vision for companies to factor their impacts on health into all business decisions, and to act in ways that will protect us and our planet. With our member companies, SHINE is building an evidence base to inspire NetPositive sustainability that ties together both health and the environment and we share the results at the annual SHINE Summit.

"We are joining forces with organizations to create better systems and strategies that allow workers to thrive and organizations to fulfill their missions, all the while leaving the planet better off," says Dr. Gregory Norris, my SHINE Co-Director. "Unless we have happy, healthy and productive people, organizations will not operate at their utmost potential."

Inspiring a more positive and holistic approach to corporate sustainability that no longer neglects worker well-being and drives a NetPositive impact on people and the planet is the future of business. Enriching the nature of work as if our health depends on it raises impactful opportunities for nurturing creativity, innovation, and even mindfulness of our natural environment.

We know from years of research that fulfilling work leads to healthier and happier people. Creating workplace cultures where workers flourish is a business opportunity no organization should ignore.