In recent years, many businesses have put a premium on improving employee health—often through investments in workplace wellness programs, onsite clinics, or the availability of fruit and vegetables on the premises.
Ostensibly, these programs are intended to generate a return on investment (ROI), with the thought that healthier employees are more productive employees, less likely to miss work, and more prepared to fulfill their potential. To date, though, research from the field has been mixed on whether workplace wellness programs and clinics deliver the ROI they promise.
But the business case for improving health can extend far beyond the workplace. It’s increasingly accepted that our health is inextricably tied to where we live, learn, play, and work—that is, in every corner of our communities. Recent research has even uncovered a link between the health of a business’ workforce and the health of the community in which that business is located.
But what is the business case for improving community health? How might an employer’s investment in the health of a community contribute to that employer’s economic success, brand, and reputation? Insofar as its employees are a part of this community around the office building, it appears that businesses should have an incentive to invest in improving community health. But we want to measure it.
That spirit is behind a new $2 million Call for Proposals (CFP), led by a partnership of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and AcademyHealth. The CFP is open through June 14 and seeks to answer questions related to making the business case for improving health. The CFP aims to fund research that builds not only the evidence base for how private-sector investment can help build a Culture of Health, but also what returns businesses receive from this investment.
This research can also shed some light on how the health of a community might factor into the decisions of businesses, from where they choose to locate to how investments in health and well-being might affect their bottom lines.
We have seen businesses make these types of decisions before. When CVS announced in 2014 that it would ban all tobacco products from their stores, CVS President and CEO Larry Merlo remarked that it was “the right thing to do,” but underlying the decision was an acknowledgement that good health can also be good business. While many pointed to the negative consequences of the profit loss associated with removing tobacco and related products, a year after the ban, CVS reported increases in some of its health-related revenue—its pharmacy benefit management services, retail clinics, and smoking-cessation products.
Research under this CFP presents an opportunity to engage businesses more deeply in the health equity of their communities. Health equity is an environment where every person has an equal opportunity to pursue a healthier life—regardless of what their ethnic, geographic, gender, racial, socioeconomic, or physical circumstances happen to be. It stands to reason that businesses may benefit from being part of a truly equitable community—where employees, as well as potential customers, all enjoy the opportunity to live healthier lives.
To help answer these questions, researchers in many disciplines, including health services, behavioral health, business, and organizational behavior, just to name a few, will need to come together. Thinking about how businesses can invest in health beyond the bounds of their campuses is relatively uncharted territory, so the goal is to fund a diverse range of studies that can help inform the thinking of businesses, communities, and others.
Ultimately, the health of a business and the health of a community are inextricably linked. But without the empirical evidence to make the business case, it’s possible that many organizations will continue down the road of narrowly focused wellness initiatives for the foreseeable future. And while fruit in the break room and lunchtime Pilates certainly are perks for which many employees are grateful, there must be solutions out there that promote health and business performance in every corner of the community.