Opinion

Achieving the Returns of a Healthy Economy Requires Investing In the Health of America’s Workers

Evidence from the ongoing pandemic indicates that chronic conditions ranging from diabetes to hypertension to obesity increase the risk of severe illness from COVID-19 for adults of any age. In addition to spotlighting the downstream health risks of chronic illnesses, our pandemic year of reduced physical activity and increased mental strain risks reversing progress more broadly for chronic disease management. Indeed, early reports of pandemic-induced declines in cholesterol screenings and treatment initiation underscore experts’ warnings that another, hidden pandemic may follow COVID-19.

 

For example, data from Google Health’s COVID-19 Search Trends symptoms dataset shows a clear drop in searches related to diabetes in early 2020 and a spike in mid-2020. Previous research indicates that Google searches can be used to detect the onset of diabetes; consequently, the fluctuations in diabetes-related searches during the pandemic may suggest potential disruptions to disease diagnosis and management.

 

As businesses emerge from the pandemic, employers seeking to support and maintain the health of their workforce will need to double down on initiatives to prevent and manage chronic disease. Prior to the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated U.S. employers were already losing more than $225 billion annually from health-related losses in productivity. Research suggests that investing in chronic disease prevention and management can potentially reduce medical and absenteeism costs and increase positive health behaviors among employees. A commitment to creating a culture of employee health is therefore a business imperative in the 21st century — and the COVID-19 crisis presents a unique and powerful opportunity for employers to invest in workplace well-being.

 

The benefits of employer action for health extend far beyond public health emergencies. First, it is no secret that the American health care system is the most expensive in the entire world. With most Americans receiving health care coverage through their employers, the business community is well-positioned to combat the growing cost of managing and preventing chronic disease in the U.S. workforce. Indeed, surveys already indicate the majority of companies are exploring overhauls to their benefit systems to incorporate the lessons of COVID-19.

 

Second, companies are increasingly attuned to the impact that their businesses can have in making positive change. For example, the environmental, social and corporate governance movement by investors illustrates how many businesses have begun to broaden the definition of their purpose to ensure they serve all Americans. Adhering to this mission requires both external and internal leadership. Externally, business leaders can build upon pandemic-era partnerships with public health to continue promoting the health of our nation. Internally, business leaders should be investing in their employees, which encompasses both fair compensation and access to important benefits.

 

The de Beaumont Foundation and Institute for Health and Productivity Studies at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health have identified how business leaders can align with public health and lead the way. Their report presents seven practical steps businesses can take to strengthen partnerships and improve the health of their employees, communities, and the nation.

 

Three key action steps leaders for mid- to large-sized businesses can take are:

  • Use publicly available health promotion tools and resources to design, implement and evaluate impactful workplace programs and health benefits;
  • Coalesce resources across departments and functions to improve workers’ health and well-being; and
  • Empower a chief medical officer, chief health officer or chief public health officer who will provide expert guidance on managing the health risks from COVID-19 and creating a roadmap for recovering from the pandemic.

 

But there is a role in improving health across all businesses, regardless of size. For instance, small businesses that are self-insured can ensure the benefits program they design adequately covers workforce health needs by using data-driven decision-making and communicates with employees about well-being.

 

For example, Google created the chief health officer position in 2019 to include a focus on health into the company’s business as well as its workplace culture. These enterprise-wide functions are on display during the pandemic, as many chief health officers have led the response to COVID-19 in the workplace (e.g., work-from-home policies, testing and vaccination sites) and across their business (e.g., launching pandemic-specific products), illustrating the value of institutionalizing health leadership in the c-suite.

 

With COVID-19, employers should feel a sense of urgency to embrace health and wellness benefits that prevent and manage chronic disease, thus making their organizations less vulnerable to inevitable future pandemics and existing comorbidities. Collaboration between the public and private sector can help ensure that business leaders will succeed with this effort.

 

After all, if there’s one lasting lesson from the pandemic, it’s that achieving the returns of a healthy economy requires first investing in the health of America’s workers.

 

Judy Monroe, M.D., is the president and CEO of the CDC Foundation in Atlanta, Ga.

Karen DeSalvo, M.D., MPH, M.Sc. is chief health officer at Google in Mountain View, Ca.

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