Why health is an important measure of business performance

The relationship between the public and private sectors, which is constantly evolving, requires renewed collaboration – and going beyond employee health and wellness – to maximize pandemic response and recovery.

By and Howard Koh, MD, MPH, Harvey V. Fineberg Professor of the Practice of Public Health Leadership, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health | Harvard Kennedy School | 3 minute read | October 22, 2020

Man working at an office desk wearing a facial mask with socially distant colleague nearby.

Complex problems require collaboration. In the pandemic response, as society struggles to reopen and people return to work, it is vital to reconsider the relationship between public health and private business. Reimagining solutions can help business and society move forward.

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the clear links between health and business in ways we‘ve never seen before. Leaders from all industries are addressing issues of public health and private business simultaneously and are looking for ways to work better together. We have seen apparel companies re-purposing production lines for face masks, automobile companies working to develop ventilators, and even distilleries producing hand sanitizer.

All communities need confidence that their neighborhoods are becoming healthier in order for business to continue to flourish. We start by emphasizing a concept initially penned by John Quelch, CBE, the Leonard M. Miller University Chair Professor, Vice Provost for Executive Education, and Dean of the Miami Herbert Business School at the University of Miami. He said:

“Every business is a health business.”

This statement is revolutionary, as business and health have had a checkered history, in our opinion. Now, more examples are surfacing to demonstrate how business and public health leaders can work together to help improve well-being. The global sustainability movement, in particular, challenges everyone to meet today’s needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet tomorrow’s.1

A more mature model, coined by Harvard experts Mark Kramer and Michael Porter as “Creating Shared Value” (CSV), has emerged in the last decade or two.2 This concept proposes that organizations create the most sustainable, long-term value when their business models address both social and financial impact in an integrated way. Companies embrace this strategy as part of an enlightened self-interest. Those that fail to prioritize social values, such as public health, will ultimately undermine their own competitive advantage.

Integrating a Culture of Health and Business Performance

With a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and in collaboration with many stakeholders, a research team from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Business School has adopted a Culture of Health “four pillar framework” proposed by Professor Quelch. It offers a way for businesses to view their actions in order to maximize the well-being of employees, consumers, the community and the environment, ultimately contributing to a healthier population and economy.3

The four priority areas of the Culture of Health framework are:

  • Employee Health: consideration of worker well-being
  • Consumer Health: healthfulness and safety of products and services
  • Community Health: health and safety efforts in the location of doing business
  • Environmental Health: impact of operations on the environment

Related research from the Harvard team, conducted in partnership with Sara Singer, MBA, PhD, Professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine and Stanford Graduate School of Business, supports the notion that there is growing attention to recognizing health and equity as business imperatives.

Singer and the research team conducted the first nationally representative survey on the actions businesses take, and why, to improve health and wellbeing.4 One thousand US companies were asked about specific actions across the four pillars of the Culture of Health. Results indicate there is opportunity for improvement; overall, while surveyed companies act on 38% of the initiatives, only 8% of responding companies address all four pillars.5

While there is more work to be done, businesses are recognizing the importance of a more holistic definition of health, and one that extends into the community. COVID-19 has made it even more apparent that every company is indeed a ‘health company.’

Curious to read about the latest research in workplace COVID-19 policies, vaccine hesitancy and more? Check out our IBM Watson Health PULSE polls–one of the largest and longest-running consumer health surveys in the US.

  1. Serafeim G, Rischbieth AM, Koh HK. Sustainability, Business, and Health. JAMA. 2020;324(2):147–148. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.8714
  2. https://hbr.org/2011/01/the-big-idea-creating-shared-value
  3. Koh HK, Singer SJ, Edmondson AC. Health as a Way of Doing Business. JAMA. 2019;321(1):33–34. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.18935
  4. Toward a Corporate Culture of Health: Results of a National Survey. Kyle, et.al. The Milbank Quarterly. December 2019 (Volume 97)
  5. Ibid