Businesses and Public Health: Allies, Not Adversaries

The storyline has been consistent throughout the pandemic: economic and public health interests are fundamentally at odds. The reality is quite different. Business and public health have always been intrinsically connected, with shared mutual interests.

One such interest is having a healthy workforce. Employees that maintain good health are more cooperative and productive. They improve companies’ public personas. Alternatively, if employees are unhealthy, they are more likely to call in sick, costing U.S. businesses $225 billion annually. This has long been a real concern in the U.S., where many workers experience preventable health problems.

Consider the following statistics: about 17% of adults smoke, costing businesses an annual average of more than $5000 per employee in smoking breaks and health costs. About 70% of Americans over 20 years old are overweight or obese, costing businesses well over $4000 per year in additional health care costs. And 25% of Americans 18 years and older had at least one heavy drinking day in the last year, costing businesses an estimated $179 billion annually in lost workplace productivity.

These numbers reveal a significant opportunity. By developing an intentional and strategic focus on health factors for employees, such as stress, excess alcohol consumption, and smoking, businesses could be reducing their expenses and increasing their profits.

A business-health collaboration is not unusual for successful companies. In 2016, Target chose to look outward. As a centerpiece of its Corporate Social Responsibility strategy, the company invested $40 million in 50 nonprofit organizations across the U.S. to increase the physical activity and healthy eating habits of children and their families. This type of investment hinges on the premise that healthier American communities are fundamental to the future of all profitable companies.

Such business-health collaborative efforts can happen on a smaller scale. The University of Washington, together with the American Cancer Society and eight employers in the Pacific Northwest, launched a promotional program that encouraged employees to utilize the preventative aspects of their health insurance, such as cancer screening and flu vaccines. The program increased targeted preventive behaviors among employees from 38 to 61 percent.

There are also a growing number of businesses that directly support health and well-being through their products or services. Tech companies excel at this. They create applications that more effectively support exercise, nutritional products and services, and healthy homes and neighborhoods. These social-entrepreneurial businesses could be natural partners for public health organizations, as they are already focusing on improving peoples’ health.

More and more so, business leaders are seeing the importance of health and wellbeing in everything from driving up profits to attracting and retaining talent. Conversely, healthy communities lead to stronger workforces and economies. In other words, business and public health are natural allies. Even a pandemic doesn’t change that.

Eric Collins
Vice President of Programs, IPS

Eric Collins has thrived working in the communications, nonprofit and government sectors for three decades. He rejoined IPS in 2020 as the Vice President of Programs. In earlier roles with the organization, he directed the activities of the Alcohol Policy Panel of San Diego County and served as a project manager on county and federal grants focused on public health and safety, community revitalization, and substance abuse prevention.