By Karen Moseley and Nico Pronk
Improving community health is a big job made up of countless small pieces. Factors as disparate as access to affordable housing, graduation rates, and substance abuse all play a role, and each facet requires its own unique approach.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has called creating a culture of health “one of the most pervasive challenges of our time,” and making meaningful progress against this challenge will require input from government, the non-profit sector, and private employers. The first two entities on that list have long had a presence in community-health efforts, and employers are starting to better understand their part of the equation.
“The connection between business vitality and community health is broad and significant. We’ve seen many examples of how a successful business can fuel a thriving community, and vice versa,” said Cathy Baase, former global director of health services for The Dow Chemical Company. “Employers are well positioned to be leaders on community health, and they increasingly recognize that their responsibility to support good health extends beyond their office walls. For some, that means extending wellness benefits to spouses and family members, but employers are also increasingly supporting employer-community collaborations designed to improve the health of the broader community.”
There are benefits for everyone when the community is healthier. The United States currently spends more on health care than any other country, but 75 percent of that spending goes to treating preventable conditions once they manifest. Just 4 percent goes to preventing those conditions from showing up in the first place. Changing the way we spend could keep people healthier and save everyone money.
There are also business benefits, both direct and indirect, to creating a healthier community. Better health means improved productivity and reduced rates of presenteeism and absenteeism. It also means employees don’t have to stay home as often to care for ailing family members. Employers bear much of the burden of bad health in the form of health plan costs, worker’s compensation payments, and reduced productivity. By one estimate, the cost of providing health care accounts for up to 7.6 percent of a company’s annual operating budget, an average of $8,669 per covered employee. Any improvement to employee health, then, has the potential to pay big dividends.
When employers and community groups collaborate, the benefits multiply for everyone. An investment of $1 in biking and walking trails can return benefits up to $11.80, and $1 invested in food and nutrition education returns $10 in reduced health care costs.
In Albert Lea, MN, the Healthways-led Blue Zones Project used a partnership among city government and private business to encourage residents to make healthier choices. After one year, the average participant had lost two pounds and added 2.9 years to his or her life expectancy. There was a 20 percent reduction in absenteeism for top local employers.
“A community is healthier when its families have access to clean water, healthy food choices, and early childhood education, and when there is adequate investment in social infrastructure. When the community is healthy, employers benefit from access to a happy, healthy workforce that will likely be more productive,” said Baase. “Employers are in a powerful position to make a difference on all of these measures, and there are clear benefits to them if they contribute.”
A new report from the HERO Employer-Community Collaboration Committee offers insight into what employers want most from community health efforts. Through a literature review and interviews with business leaders across the country, HERO identified 20 community health topics that are most significant to employers. Those topics range from the tangible — how well a physical environment supports healthy lifestyles — to more ephemeral matters like emotional health. All of those factors play a role in the health of a community, and they all present employers with an opportunity to make meaningful changes.
There is a network of influences — all tied to the community — that make up the bulk of the impact on community health. And while some of those elements are interconnected — the level of physical activity in a community, for example, has strong ties to the degree to which the physical environment supports getting out and being active — addressing them all is beyond the reach of any single effort. How, then, do business leaders decide where to allocate their resources?
HERO addressed that question by conducting relevance testing with community leaders and employers across the country. The result was a list of six key elements employers consider when deciding whether to get involved in a community health effort:
Collaboration in action
A shining example of a community-corporate collaboration has developed over more than a decade in Dubuque, Iowa.
Dubuque has led a 15-year economic development effort that involves stakeholders from around the community, and the city’s work has won national awards. One of the biggest reasons for their success is that everybody is on the same page. They work together to achieve common goals, communicate frequently, and are led by a strong convener.
Because the people involved in Dubuque’s efforts identified with a strong mission and goals, they were able to create constant purpose with the potential to build a sustainable culture of health.
Getting that kind of collaboration requires balancing the priorities of all stakeholders involved, but there’s no question it’s important. One could argue it is impossible to achieve overall health without the leadership, philanthropy, and advocacy the business community can provide. The challenge is not insurmountable. By creating efforts that address the priorities of business leaders, and by leaning on tools provided by efforts like Healthy Workplaces, Healthy Communities to provide a common language for everyone involved, organizers can create efforts that will engage a broad cross-section of the community. Doing so could be a big step toward better health for everyone.
Karen Moseley is vice president of education and director of operations for HERO. She has worked in the nonprofit sector for 25 years and has managed the development and dissemination of a number of publications and educational conferences. Nico Pronk, Ph.D., is president at the HealthPartners Institute and chief science officer at HealthPartners. He co-chairs the HERO Employer-Community Collaboration Study Committee, which serves as the governing body for the Healthy Workplaces, Healthy Communities initiative.
Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons