Investing in Health and Productivity of the Workforce: A NewPublicHealth Q&A with Andrew Webber

Jul 11, 2011, 6:53 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth

A recent article in the journal PLoS One noted a rare downside to gainful employment—jobs requiring moderate physical activity accounted for 50 percent of the labor market in 1960, but have fallen since then to just 20 percent of the total. The article’s authors say the remaining 80 percent of jobs are either sedentary ones or only require light physical activity, and that the reduced activity is a factor in the rise in obesity in the U.S. in the last five decades.

NewPublicHealth spoke with Andrew Webber, president and C.E.O. of the National Business Coalition on Health, about the study findings and opportunities to increase physical activity, and other healthy behaviors, among U.S. workers and the general population. NBCH is a national membership organization of purchaser-led health care coalitions.

NewPublicHealth: Recent research about the link between a decline in jobs requiring physical activity and weight gain in the U.S. in the last five decades seems quite dramatic. What should businesses be doing to help reverse the trend?

Andrew Webber: First of all, we’re in the middle of an obesity epidemic in this country and it’s not just the working population. We’re increasing in weight gain everywhere across the board. And there are a lot of reasons for that increase. A great deal of research has indicated that the conditions, both at the workplace and in the community, are not conducive to people losing weight--from lack of physical activity opportunities to individual behaviors to challenges in purchasing healthy food in many communities. There are a lot of reasons why we have this obesity epidemic and of course it is a precursor for the tsunami of chronic conditions in this country.

From an employer perspective, we have a huge interest--a business imperative--to be investing in the health and productivity of our workforce. And not just because we have a moral or social responsibility, but because the health and productivity of our workforce is a competitive asset. It’s the key to our bottom line. We need healthy, productive workers who can do their work. A responsibility--a business imperative for the business community--is investing in their human capital and improving the health and productivity of their workforce as a bottom line issue.

NPH: Do you think that businesses have a social responsibility to go beyond their employees and to help make communities healthier?

Andrew Webber: The answer is yes. I think employers have a responsibility to think about the influence of community dynamics on influencing the health and productivity of their workforce. The simple fact is an employer can do a wonderful job within the four corners of their work site in terms of building a culture of health. But then often individual employees walk, after their eight hours of work, into very unhealthy communities with no safe streets, with fast food restaurants on every corner, with no investments in local parks and recreation and sidewalks. Employers need to understand that the community influence can compromise their investments in workforce health. I think the employer community needs to be thinking about their contribution to improving population health at a community level as well.

NPH: Can you point to some innovative efforts of coalitions?

Andrew Webber: Part of our agenda is to reform the health care delivery system as a purchaser of health care services--getting the delivery system itself to be focusing more upstream on prevention and health promotion. Through an effort that we have with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called Community Health Partnerships we’ve been trying to encourage our coalition to become participants and leaders in community population health projects. One that comes to mind is our coalition in Rockford, Illinois. They team with the local public school department and the YMCA to create an after school physical exercise program for the kids in a very distressed, inner-city school with a high minority population. And the contribution of the coalition beyond funding was to do the measurements of obesity levels and risk factors of those kids and then measure after the intervention what progress has been made. I think understanding that this is our future workforce is crucial. We’re employers grounded in this community--and our businesses and our future workforce is dependent on broader population health and building a culture of health in the community where we reside and do business.

NPH: Have the County Health Rankings, developed by the University of Wisconsin and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, been a call to action for the Coalition?

Andrew Webber: The issue of population health has resonated with our coalition community well before the county health rankings. But there is no question that having detailed--and at a county level--information on population and health statistics can be a call to action. And we’ve been a strong believer in transparency and public reporting as a motivator for then getting stake-holders together to look at where the opportunities for improvements are, as well as to use that data to measure whether or not we’re moving the needle with various intervention strategies that we then try to put in place. We have made our fifty-four coalitions around the country very much aware of the local county rankings, we’ve pushed the website out every year when it’s released and some of our coalitions have used the county rankings together with other data that they have to measure the health and health care at their community level.


This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.