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Are corporations committed to health? Survey suggests there’s room to improve

How much are private sector companies doing to improve the health of their employees, consumers, communities and the environment? Are they investing in their neighborhoods? Do they require their suppliers to offer health benefits to employees?

New research led by Stanford's Sara Singer, MBA, PhD, offers a starting point for answering these questions.

Singer is the senior author on a study that surveyed a sample of 1,017 corporations about more than two dozen actions related to promoting a "culture of health," which supports well-being and mitigates harm in individuals and their communities.

It's important to gauge how the private sector is acting, Singer told me, because these businesses have reach and influence that extend well beyond what physicians or other health care promotors can provide.

"We take on a lot in the medical sector," she said, "but we are increasingly recognizing that we can't do all of it alone, and that there is an outsized role for the corporate sector and other sectors to play in making this transformation toward better health."

The survey generally asked organizations about health and fitness benefits offered to employees; prioritization of creating healthier products for consumers; community investment and engagement; and pursuit of environmentally-friendly opportunities, such as using renewable energy sources.

The researchers also presented questions to measure organizations' investment in social responsibility goals, such as whether those goals were listed in the company's mission and whether the person who was responsible for assessing progress was a senior leader.

The answers revealed a wide variation in what companies are doing, with no clear trends by business size or industry. On average, organizations took 38% of the 28 health-related actions in the survey -- a result that leaves room for improvement, Singer said: "There's a lot of opportunity for growth."

The most popular action overall was holding a social event within the community to increase visibility, an action which 75% of the companies reported taking. Other popular actions included offering employees reimbursement or monetary rewards for a fitness club membership or other healthy behavior (42%); engaging in formal efforts to offset negative environmental impacts in the production or consumption of their products (38%); and pursuing opportunities to change products to promote health and well-being for consumers (59%).

Businesses were more likely to take actions promoting a culture of health if they also perceived that the action would have a positive return on investment, the researchers found. Singer told me that this could open the door to improve corporate performance. "If we could demonstrate more positive returns, we would hope we would see more action," she said.

Those positive returns can be more than just monetary. These days, investors, employees and customers pay attention to a company's social footprint, and they demand accountability, Singer said:

Businesses have opportunities for building their brand and getting more customers, for hiring and retaining the right people. Fortunately, we're in an environment where the labor market is tight, and differentiating themselves in the marketplace as being a company where people can derive meaning, where they can have a semblance of a work/life balance, these things matter a lot to the potential employees who are making the decision about going to X organization versus Y organization and then staying there.

Singer acknowledged that some companies concentrate on promoting one area of health, such as employee health, without necessarily focusing on the environment, consumer health or the community. That's fine, she said, but they can aspire to more.            

"We are increasingly seeing how these four issues are interconnected, and we've been advocating for organizations to strategically plan together around all four," Singer told me. "When these issues are considered as a whole, rather than tackled independently, there is an opportunity to make a bigger difference."

Photo by Ryan Park

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