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Proactive versus reactive

I am one of the executive heads at a business owned by a family,” says Mark (not his real name). “The pandemic affects us, but not too badly, and I tell coworkers to be grateful.

“We, the executive team, are running the day-to-day, and we argue about resource allocation. We follow social distancing, but this is not enough. I cannot give details, but some employees already got the coronavirus (hopefully not in the workplace). I worry that more of our people will fall ill unless we implement better measures.

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“We actually have enough resources, but other people in the company want to use these for other things. They say that quarantine rules are minimal, health measures are costly, and funds are needed to keep the business afloat.

“I want to be proactive rather than reactive. Do you know of cases, even not pandemic-related, where businesses invest in prevention rather than treatment?”

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My reply

I don’t know enough to assess how the pandemic is being handled. Unfortunately, we are still in the top 20 global list with the most number of infections.

In his book “Upstream,” Duke University’s Dan Heath urges us to use data for learning. Doctors, nurses and health workers are on the front lines, and they have firsthand data to calibrate response.

Heath says, “Using data [incorrectly] is so common that leaders are sometimes oblivious … [We need to ask:] What are your priorities when it comes to data and measurement? … It’s important to set up data systems that are useful for people on the front lines … How will this data be used by doctors and nurses to improve patient care? How can the local community use the information? But that’s rarely how the systems are designed.”

For the late business guru Stephen Covey, being proactive rather than reactive is a habit of highly effective people. That is what you are advocating now in your company.

But as you describe, this is easier said than done, since no one is certain about how this pandemic evolves. We are facing a black swan, in the words of former option trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

I salute you for trying to be proactive rather than reactive.

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Heath gives several examples of proactive action, especially when health and business intersect.

For example, in 1890, Michigan health board head Arnold Clark bewailed the (reactive) expense of $9 million to treat patients for communicable diseases rather than (the proactive amount of) $50,000 to prevent them from getting sick in the first place.

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services deputy Patrick Conway gives the modern parallel: Why spend (a reactive) $40,000 a year for insulin to keep a diabetic alive, if it makes more sense to use (a proactive) $1,000 for prevention?

Heath discusses the case of several US nursing home officials faced with spiraling employee health costs. Their employees are caregivers who often went on sick leave due to back pain from physically lifting patients.

The officials acted by paying for sick leaves and orthopedic treatment for employees. But after rational study, they decided to be proactive and prevent back pain from the start by investing in equipment, even if expensive, to enable personnel to lift patients with ease.

In the end, lower back injuries were reduced by 35 percent between 2003 and 2009, according to the Centers for Disease and Control, ultimately decreasing lost workdays and workers’ compensation claims by two-thirds.

Heath describes other case studies, where being proactive rather than reactive works: inner city children at risk, home pest control, restaurant customer service, accountable health care.

Show your colleagues this column and get Heath’s book online as evidence that prevention is often better than cure. I commend your concern for your people. God bless.

Queena N. Lee-Chua is with the board of Directors of Ateneo’s Family Business Center. Get her book “All in the Family Business” at www.lazada.com.ph. Contact the author at [email protected]

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