Want a Healthier Workforce? Investing in Community Health Can Pay Off

Aug 18, 2015, 10:40 AM, Posted by

Regardless of what sector they occupy, businesses have a critical role to play in improving the health of their employees and in forging vibrant, healthy communities beyond their own walls.

Nearly 80% of U.S. employers now offer workplace health promotion programs aimed at improving the health and productivity of their workers. The most comprehensive of these programs—mainly at larger companies—have employees doing yoga poses at lunchtime; 7-minute workouts during breaks, or spinning at the on-site gym. Cafeterias may offer salad bars and heart-healthy entrees while vending machines are stocked with wholesome snacks and water instead of chips and soda. Some companies provide free weight loss counseling or connect employees at risk of heart disease or diabetes with a health coach. The entire workplace may be smoke-free.

But what happens when employees leave the four walls of these healthy workplaces and go home? If they live in neighborhoods with scarce green space, poor access to active transportation, few nutritious food options, or in communities plagued by crime or pollution, it can be very difficult for employees and their families to continue making healthy lifestyle choices. For businesses, the desired impact of their workplace health promotion programs will necessarily be limited.

So how can companies promote health both within and beyond their four walls? The first step, according to a new report released by the Vitality Institute, with funding from RWJF, is for organizations to better understand the connection between where employees live and their health status. In the report, titled Beyond the Four Walls: Why Community is Critical to Workforce Health, researchers found that employees working in particular sectors, such as transportation and warehousing, manufacturing, and public administration, are more likely to smoke and are at higher risk for obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Interestingly, these sectors were also more highly concentrated in U.S. counties with elevated levels of smoking and obesity and chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension. It’s clear, according to the Vitality Institute report, “Major employment sectors with unhealthy work forces are more likely to be located in counties with poor health, demonstrating the linkage between community and workforce health.”

That’s where cross-collaborations between businesses and community partners become important. Currently, only a fraction of companies address the environmental and social drivers of workforce health at the community level. The ones that do employ best-practice strategies—many of them described in the report—could be emulated by other organizations. These strategies fall into three main categories, often combined:

1) Strategic use of philanthropy—giving to the community via financial donations and non-cash contributions such as time, expertise, and resources

2) Corporate social responsibility—promoting positive social and environmental change, even if there is not an immediate financial benefit to the company

3) Creating shared value—business policies and practices that enhance the competitiveness of a company while advancing economic and social conditions in the surrounding communities

Kaiser Permanente’s Community Health Initiative is a great example of the strategic use of philanthropy. Through its Healthy Eating and Active Living collaboratives, the health care giant has allocated more than $50 million in grants to 50-plus communities within its service area. These are communities where people insured by Kaiser live and also where many employees reside. Through the HEAL initiative the company supports existing community groups in such efforts as increasing physical activity in schools, building bike and walking paths, improving access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and influencing urban planning. The idea is to engage and invest in these communities so that healthy choices are easy to make and readily available to all residents.

Another example is Dow Chemical Co.’s collaboration with the Michigan Health Improvement Alliance (MiHIA), a multi-stakeholder group that is working to improve health and health delivery in 14 counties in central Michigan—home to Dow’s headquarters. Noting the elevated rate of diabetes in these counties and among employees, the company worked with many organizations in the private, public, and non-profit sectors as well as with the Center for Disease Control to develop a diabetes prevention program integrated into its workplace health promotion efforts. Eventually, Dow extended this program—as well as other health and prevention strategies—outside its four walls, taking a leadership role within MiHIA in implementing the CDC’s Diabetes Prevention Program in central Michigan. This is a great example of a shared value strategy—while the initiative benefits the community as a whole, Dow has seen a reduction in the burden of chronic disease among employees and their families. A study by Towers Watson comparing employee health at Dow with peer companies found that the prevalence of chronic conditions among Dow employees was 17% lower while the company also spent 17% less on diabetes and other chronic conditions.

The Vitality Institute report has other examples of promising strategies businesses can use to help improve community health while also reaping benefits in employee health, product development (i.e. healthy food and beverages options), and corporate reputation. The authors also drive home an important point we make often at RWJF: our health is affected by where we live, learn, work and play. To have the greatest impact businesses need to first understand which health issues are most prevalent amongst their employees and in the local communities in which they live. Community interventions needed to address obesity and diabetes in the manufacturing sector, for example, might be different from those best suited for reducing high rates of smoking and hypertension in retail workers.

In the end, The Vitality Institute report serves as a call to action, offering strong evidence for the link between employee and community health. It also offers a blueprint of sorts for increasing cross-sector collaboration that presents a win-win opportunity for employers and community groups. Regardless of what sector they occupy, businesses have a critical role to play in improving the health of their employees and in forging vibrant, healthy communities beyond their own walls.

Marjorie Paloma, staff photo.


Marjorie Paloma, MPH, is a Director at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) leading RWJF's efforts in engaging business for health. Read her full bio.