The Business Case for a Healthier Community


By Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, CEO, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

U.S. businesses suffer more than $225 billion in losses each year due to absent and sick workers. It makes sense, then, that most U.S. employers have come to embrace the idea that a healthy workforce is good for the bottom line – almost 80 percent of all organizations with 50 or more staffers offer some kind of workplace wellness program. But it’s time to think bigger. Employees don’t spend 24/7 at their jobs, and it doesn’t do a lot of good to emphasize health on the job if employees go home to an unhealthy community.

Organizations that want to have the greatest possible impact on the health of their employees must extend their workplace initiatives into the regions surrounding their business, and invest in improving the health of the local population.

That may sound well beyond the remit of most companies, but the fact is it makes good business sense. A report just released by the Vitality Institute and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) finds that the health of an organization’s employees is intrinsically linked to the overall health of the surrounding community. Workers are much more likely to be in poor health if they live in counties with a poor health profile. Yet only a small fraction of employers sponsor health programs in their communities, according to a 2013 Kaiser Family Foundation survey, although 65 percent extend workplace wellness programs to spouses and dependents.

In the Vitality Institute study, Beyond the Four Walls: Why Community is Critical to Workforce Health, researchers analyzed health data such as obesity, smoking rates, and cardiovascular disease from more than 3,100 U.S. counties and compared these associations to workforce health data from across 21 major industries. They found that manufacturing, transportation and warehousing, retail, and public administration employers were more likely to be located in counties with poor health, and the majority of these sectors also employ a less healthy workforce.

The manufacturing sector is just one example. Previous research shows that employment in factories is associated with higher rates of obesity; the Vitality Institute also found factories to be more highly concentrated in counties with a high rate of obesity. Correlation isn’t causation, but the link calls for further research paired with comprehensive approaches that help every resident achieve a healthy weight and pursue a healthy life. 

Here’s where industry can play a particularly powerful part. The researchers  conducted interviews with more than 70 employer and community groups to uncover three strategies businesses are using to implement population health programs:

  • Strategic philanthropy – giving to the community via financial donations and non-cash contributions such as time, expertise, and resources
  • Corporate social responsibility – promoting positive social and environmental change, even if there is not an immediate financial benefit to the company
  • Creating shared value – business policies and practices that enhance the competitiveness of a company while advancing economic and social conditions in the surrounding communities, such as extending wellness strategies beyond the four walls of the workplace.

Take General Dynamics Bath Iron Works (BIW), a ship manufacturer in Bath, Maine. BIW joined forces with nearby retailer L.L. Bean to extend workplace diabetes prevention programs, originally set up for employees and dependents, to the community at large. In partnership with local hospitals, BIW launched three diabetes management classes with a total of 104 participants between May 2014 and February 2015. The two companies share the cost — $200 per participant — with health care providers, and paid for the initial training of the class facilitators, who work with participants to change their lifestyle and better monitor their disease.

In the first class of 11, weight loss improved by an average of 7 percent and each participant improved their diabetes management scores. BIW estimates that, on average, participants in the program will see their health care costs reduced by 60 percent over five year

As BIW shows, employers don’t have to try this approach on their own. There are many potential collaborators, including local non-profits, health authorities, other nearby businesses, and community organizations. They can also draw on community health databases to determine what health needs should take priority. RWJF’s County Health Rankings, for example, which formed the backbone of the Vitality Institute’s research, measure a multitude of factors that impact health for every county in the U.S., and are freely available to all.

The bottom line? To truly have an impact, businesses that care about the health and productivity of their workforce must address the health needs of the communities around them.

If your organization is addressing community health needs, if you have a good idea about how to design such a program, or if you are open to collaborating on such issues, please share in the comments below or on social media by tagging #Beyond4Walls. The more ideas the better!


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