Workplace Wellness: Q&A with Catherine M. Baase, The Dow Chemical Company

Aug 21, 2014, 3:52 PM

We’ve written extensively on NewPublicHealth on the importance of building a Culture of Health—an environment where everyone has access to opportunities to make healthy choices. In June, the Washington Post held a live forum—sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation—titled “Health Beyond Health Care,” which looked at how creative minds in traditionally non-health fields are working together to build a Culture of Health in the United States. As part of our continuing coverage of this issue we spoke with Catherine M. Baase, MD, Chief Health Officer at The Dow Chemical Company, about workplace wellness programs.

Catherine M. Baase, MD Catherine M. Baase, MD, Chief Health Officer at The Dow Chemical Company

NewPublicHealth: Why do you think workplace wellness is important?

Catherine Baase: I guess it depends on “important” in what way. I’ll tell you two things. One is if you were asking me why it’s important to a business or a corporation, I think it brings critical value to many different corporate priorities—things such as safety, human capital priorities such as attracting and retaining talent, manufacturing reliability, the capacity to positively impact health care costs. So there’s a landscape of corporate priorities where the achievement of healthy people is important, even including job satisfaction and employee engagement.

But on another lens, I would say that I think workplace wellness is important to society for the achievement of public health objectives. The fact that we’re not doing really well on the achievement of health outcomes for our population as a whole, and the achievement of improved health will depend on a variety of sectors of society getting involved, and one of them is workplaces. Others are schools and communities and things like that, but the achievement of public health objectives depends a bit on workplaces being involved, as well.

NPH: Who is it that benefits from workplace wellness?

Baase: Well I think the individuals, the employees and oftentimes their families, because a lot of workplace wellness programs either directly or indirectly impact the family. It’s the community within which folks live because the culture is impacted, and the company certainly.

NPH: What would you say makes for a successful workplace wellness program?

Baase: A number of factors. I tend to believe it should be based upon a business case and a strategy. It needs to be comprehensive. I mean comprehensive in addressing a broad range of priority health topics, as well as comprehensive in terms of addressing individuals and groups—policy, as well as culture and environment. It should be metrics-driven and evidence based.

NPH: How would you say a business can go beyond just looking at health in the workplace itself to looking more at supporting the health of the communities they call home? Why should they do this?

Baase: I think there are several ways that a business can go beyond sort of an inward focus in the walls of the organization. That can be intentional, by doing things they’re already doing with a greater degree of insight and understanding about their capacity to really impact positively the health of the community. Those would include things such as corporate philanthropy being used to target high priority gaps and needs based upon a community needs assessment and utilizing evidence-based intervention.

Second would be that corporations typically have senior leaders who sit on boards such as United Way, hospitals, other community boards, specific organizations and their partnerships. So, using those individuals who have these leadership roles, knowledge and insight about the needs and the matched appropriate actions and using their influence in the community and in advocacy on state and local policy or federal policy. They’re already involved typically in all of these things, but it’s doing them as part of their health strategy and informed by that.

And even by participating in multi-stakeholder collaborations that may exist in the community, by joining those or facilitating their success. So there’s this sort of very direct extension, maybe just sharing what they’re already doing in their health promotion with maybe other employers in the community and with other organizations. So why should they? I think the community is an extension of the company in terms of the culture and the environment that people are operating in, and there can be an intentional effort as part of the strategy to influence the culture and the environment of the workplace. That similar type of effort to influence the culture in the community will just further strengthen that which is done to address the inside of the organization.

But it also helps to wrap in the family members or retirees that might be on the benefit plan and aren’t the individuals who are in the workplace, but are important as they influence it. And it also helps to have a community which is considered a thriving community of health excellence—that really helps the organization to attract and retain world-class talent, to attract and retain other business partners and increase the job satisfaction of those that are there and the retention of employees. And then if you look at macroeconomics, we all win if we all do this better, so there are just a number of reasons why I think it makes sense.

NPH: Do you see any particular challenges that community health efforts face when trying to work with businesses or trying to work with the communities? Are there obstacles that you could point to?

Baase: Well, I think that corporations have been involved in really looking at their own workplace wellness programs and their own internal strategies, and I think that just generally the majority of organizations have not really put together the business case or the strategy to involve the community. I think this is an emerging area—early adopters are doing it. So, first and foremost, they need to have an appreciation of the value proposition of doing that. That needs to be better articulated and shared—there needs to be sort of an education effort where this becomes more commonplace. So the first barrier is just people’s insight and awareness about why this matters and their capacity to do it better. Sometimes it can feel overwhelming and sort of a playbook would be helpful.

Second, even if a company said “OK, I understand I should do something at the community level”...they have to really understand what they would do and how they would do it. So having a structure or a framework within which they could operate, a playbook that gives them sort of an outline of how to go about it. And then even in the case where there are these collaborations that are in place, many of them struggle for funding and sustainability—these sort of multi-stakeholder collaboratives—and so they’re finding their way, but it’s not always easy.

NPH: You’re obviously experienced with looking at it from the business point of view and reaching out to the community. So using that experience, what sort of recommendations would you make to community health officials on how they could reach out to local companies and other job creators?

Baase: I would suggest that they share what they think the business case is—really putting themselves in the shoes of the business and say this our understanding of the business case, here’s the community needs assessment and here’s a plan of how we think you could help, and that we intend to address this and have some measurable outcomes or targets. I think that the business community is attracted to some sort of structure and believable progress, so having targets and a pass that you’re going to be on would be received well by the business community.

NPH: Can you think of anything else that you’d like to add?

Baase: I guess one point is it seems like there’s a large number of organizations who have thought seriously about this for a number of years. I call this the sort of collective “ah-ha” that a number of organizations are having that this really does matter. We need to find a way to bring together the business community and the community to make progress at the community level—it’s important to the economic health sustainability and prosperity of those communities. So, it does seem to be a convergence of many organizations coming to this belief that is well founded and based upon a lot of discernment and evidence review. We’re going to see this continue to be centrally in the sights of many organizations.

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