Putting health first in the post-COVID-19 world
The COVID-19 crisis caught the world by surprise—everyone including governments, scientists, communities and businesses. Yet, should it really have? We have been through this before—SARS, Ebola and many others. However—from transnational corporations to local enterprises—we still found ourselves unprepared and disrupted in ways that have never been seen before. Today, we witness a vast array of quick response efforts both within companies and across the business sector, but these measures are still largely reactive, driven by a need to immediately cope with the initial impacts of the pandemic and to help in the broader societal response.
The truth is that when you peek at company risk registers, preparing for economic shocks and natural disasters is a given. Little is known about the degree by which infectious disease pandemics are considered in risk analysis or business continuity plans (BCPs). We know they are risks, but perhaps are not prioritized in terms of perceived likelihood. Alas, we now realize that pandemic planning must not only be highlighted in these risk management documents. Pandemics present unique challenges, such as preventing infection spread among workers. Hence, a pandemic response and recovery plan separate from BCPs must be developed. To guide American companies, the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention developed a Business Pandemic Influenza Planning Checklist. However, the extent to which this tool is used by big corporations and small enterprises alike is unknown. Such a checklist does not even exist in developing countries like the Philippines unless companies themselves initiate. Now is the time to take reference and start preparing a customized version. Beyond epidemics, how does health show up in company priorities? Unless you are in the health-care business—hospitals, drug manufacturers and health insurance for example, health in general tends to be deprioritized. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives may have traditionally focused on medical missions in rural areas or medicine donations when natural calamities strike, but there is no evident business case for sustained company engagement in public health improvement.
Outside of CSR, the inclusion of health in overall business strategy is very minimal. A 2019 Harvard survey of Fortune 500 companies revealed that while 74 percent of them have an environmental strategy, only 9 percent have a health strategy.
“It may be because most companies have not even tried to define what health means to the business, other than being a component of employee welfare,” says Pat Dwyer, founder and director of The Purpose Business, a consultancy based in Hong Kong who works with businesses in Asia in embedding purpose and sustainability into their strategy and operations.“As we have learned with natural resources, until you put a dollar value in the true cost of water or energy use, it is very hard for companies to see the added value of health or equally, the price to pay when it is in crisis,” she adds.
COVID-19 has dramatically heightened health consciousness among business leaders in the Philippines and globally—and that is good news. For the short term, companies are putting in place measures to protect their employees, ensure sustained operations, minimize economic losses, and facilitate reentry and recovery.
However, in the long run, as society eventually transitions into the post-COVID-19 world, a forward-looking approach that considers health as central to corporate purpose will ensure not just business survival but also create healthy societies on which companies ultimately depend.
A good place to start is the “Culture of Health” framework developed by Professor John Quelch, formerly from the Harvard Business School and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. According to him, there are four pillars of a company’s public health footprint.
First is employee health, which perhaps is the most intuitive, that is why companies purchase health insurance and adhere to occupational safety standards. But advancing employee health in the 21st century must go beyond hospitalization benefits and injury risk reduction. Healthy and productive workers make healthy and robust companies. Programs for physical and mental wellness, adoption of good ergonomic principles in workplace design, turning “sick buildings” into “healthy buildings,” and flexible work arrangements are just some of the ways by which employee health can be improved.
Consumer or client health is next. Today, customers are more health conscious, demanding healthier and safer products and services and allowing purchase considerations to factor in nutritional value and chemical safety. The acknowledgement of consumer health may appear natural for the health-care industry, but for the majority of businesses who sell tangible products, such as food and toys, or experiences, such as accommodation or tourism, there is a huge potential for minimizing health damage and maximizing health gains for consumers. For instance, reducing salt content, replacing hazardous materials or improving indoor quality can generate massive public health benefits.Community health is the third pillar. A company does not exist in isolation; the surrounding community is its source of employees, suppliers and customers. Therefore, it is imperative for an enterprise to not just avoid introducing harms but also actively engage in community health enhancement. Some of the actions that can be undertaken include investing in healthy urban design, increasing access to healthy food, embedding health messages in advertising, and strengthening the local health system. Healthy and happy neighbors also lead to less street violence and make employees and customers feel secure in the vicinity.
The last pillar is environmental health. Companies may say that this is already covered by their sustainability plans, which may include carbon emission reduction targets or CSR activities like reforestation projects. Environmental health awareness exceeds these—and puts a price on the way we use and impact our natural environments. Businesses need to look beyond compliance and regulatory requirements and really take responsibility for their product’s life cycle—and this includes sourcing of raw materials and even handling of postconsumer waste.
The Culture of Health framework will help companies not just to become pandemic-ready, but also to minimize their negative disease footprint and maximize their positive health contribution. With this view, health is not an externality or a CSR opportunity—it is part of corporate DNA itself. INQThis article reflects the personal opinion of the author and does not reflect the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines or the MAP. The author is a recent Doctor of Public Health graduate of Harvard University, the Chief Planetary Doctor of PH Lab—a “glo-cal think-and-do tank” for advancing the health of people and planet. Feedback at and . For previous articles, please visit map.org.ph
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