Good Health is Good for Business

Not surprisingly, much of the conversation around health care has been focused on expenditures. Perhaps therein lies the problem.
06/23/2016 01:48 pm ET Updated Jun 24, 2017

Good health is vital. Indeed, it's often thought of as the most valuable thing in life. And while we philosophically believe we can't place a price on health, the healthcare industry does just that, and those price tags are often steep. So as more people require coverage, healthcare is a paramount concern not only to individuals, but also to employers and insurers who subsidize healthcare costs. Not surprisingly, much of the conversation around health care has been focused on expenditures. Perhaps therein lies the problem. Yes, economics are a real high-impact consideration that have to be addressed, but we need to look at the root of the issue and not just treat the symptoms. An examination into healthcare mostly contextualized around the bottom line neglects the onset of problems. To curb costs, businesses must promote a culture of better health through both advocacy and policy.

So how can this be done? Recently, Harvard Business School and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, along with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, co-hosted a conference titled, Building a Culture of Health: An Imperative for Business, at which business and healthcare leaders gathered to expand the scope of the conversation and address how to promote better health practices. I was kindly invited to attend the conference by one the organizers, Professor John Quelch, who teaches at both schools.

I went into the conference thinking it would be mostly finance based. It was taking place at Harvard Business School after all, and the list of speakers and attendees included many notable business leaders. Traditionally, we think of business brass as focused on costs and profit margins, so I anticipated the speaker lectures and group talks to be no different. I was pleasantly wrong. As the conference title suggested, the conversation was indeed about the culture of health and the "cost" considerations associated with community health were more about quality of life than quantity of dollars. Every person in the room was aware implementing policy to enhance health could be expensive, but had gathered at Harvard believing not adopting such measures would prove even more costly. This wasn't just a refreshingly humanitarian perspective, but shown to be one that actually serves business goals.

The conference stressed the collective responsibility to improve the culture of health, while emphasizing the idea that global health is fundamental to the future health of businesses. Consequently, business led initiatives are needed now. Topics such as how business could enhance early childhood health habits, better enable access to clean water in poorer communities, adopt and self-regulate stricter industrial pollution measures, achieve greater environmental sustainability, and my favorite, ways to better address and improve mental health were all poured over. It seems, while politicians continually stagnate by leveraging our healthcare as a political bargaining tool, business leaders have decided to assume the charge to improve it in meaningful ways.

This appears to be a new trend. Washington's increasingly contentious politicking is not only halting social progress, but at times even moving the country backwards, so Corporate America is stepping in. When North Carolina passed House Bill 2 in March, limiting the civil rights protections of LGBT people, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff decided he had to get involved. He also led a similar call to action last year in Indiana and is largely credited with that state's decision to reverse its anti LGBT law. Benioff articulates why business leaders are assuming a more proactive social role; "We are a country of great ideas. We're a country of innovation. And we're also about - a country of change and shifting. And because our government leaders tend to be a little weaker than they were, CEOs have to step up and be a little stronger and have a bigger voice."

What does the voice of business say are ways to improve health? From what I learned at the Building a Culture of Health conference, health must be a part of a business's mission. This can help offset the amount of money required to drive behavior change at the individual level. In corporate health culture, employee and community well-being are inextricably linked with organizational success. Health culture goals should be integrated into business performance measurements and ratings. According to Quelch, "Every company, wittingly or unwittingly, lays down a population health footprint. What we are now working on are metrics that will quantify the footprint and enable us to track improvements."

Given the effectiveness of Salesforce's CEO, it's apparent that leadership support from the top down is essential for changing beliefs and values and yielding these improvements. Business leaders must both actively express support for maintaining good health and implement the programs conducive to reaching health objectives. CEOs driving the initiatives down throughout their company ranks will help reach a company's workforce at all levels and increase the potential for a beneficial impact to the community at large. It's crucial to align business leadership with benefits and incentives, active conservation, and programs supporting healthy lifestyles.

During what has proved to be a very unusual election cycle that's revealed the deep bipartisanship and damaging bureaucracy in the current state of politics, it's become incumbent for non-politicians who can effect beneficial social change, to do so. When it comes to our health - our most valuable asset, let's all take a cue from activist business leaders to employ our voice and take initiative and ownership toward improving our health and health policies.