What will the future of health and healthcare look like? In a joint series of blog posts by the World Economic Forum’s Strategic Foresight and Health teams, a number of leading voices will present their own visions for the future. Contributions are linked to the Scenarios for Sustainable Health Systems project, the Workplace Wellness Alliance and the Healthy Living Initiative. In the following post, Sean Sullivan, Chief Executive Officer of the Institute for Health and Productivity Management and Shahnaz Radjy, Project Manager of the World Economic Forum’s Workplace Wellness Alliance will share their perspective on the future of health.

Last week, the Institute for Health and Productivity Management (IHPM) held its Annual EU Forum in Amsterdam, bringing together employers, providers and academic researchers to talk about innovations in the workplace as a locus for improving health and performance.

As the world faces the financial burden and health risks presented by non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes against a challenging backdrop of global economic competition, the workplace – where more than half the adult population spends a majority of its waking time – provides a unique opportunity to improve lifestyle behaviours and contribute to a healthier, more productive population. And NCDs are no longer confined to developed nations, which reinforces the need to make tackling them a high priority commitment for governments, communities and employers.

Following the UN High-Level Meeting on NCDs in September 2011 and the declaration that followed, private-sector companies have explicitly been asked to play a key role in promoting and creating an enabling environment for healthier behaviours among their workers by implementing workplace wellness programmes and building organizational cultures of health. Healthy workplaces and companies improve the productivity of workers and attract and retain talent, while reducing the impact of the more prevalent NCDs.

These factors together make the mission and actions of the Workplace Wellness Alliance increasingly relevant and even critical to the improvement of health and productivity globally. The Alliance was established in 2009 following a response to the Call for Action at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2008. Since its establishment, the Alliance has grown and evolved in its membership base to encompass more than 150 companies worldwide, covering 5 million employees across nine industry sectors.

With a dual focus on knowledge sharing and metrics, the Alliance in 2012 has gathered data from 25 companies covering almost 2 million employees across 125 locations. To continue scaling up in membership and impact, the Forum has begun collaborating with the Institute for Health and Productivity Management (IHPM) – a global non-profit enterprise headquartered in the United States.

In the closing panel of IHPM’s EU Forum in Amsterdam, employers and providers shared their latest thinking on workplace wellness and how to leverage initiatives to slow rising healthcare costs, increase employee engagement and improve competitiveness. Alliance members such as Discovery Health, Novartis, Right Management (a Manpower Company) and Unilever were joined by a representative of the World Economic Forum to share lessons learned through the work carried out over the past three years. Key challenges include managing top-level buy-in for workplace wellness programmes while finding “champions” to increase employee participation at all levels, and finding the right metrics for benchmarking across geographies.

The longer-term vision is for the Alliance to reside outside the Forum, expanding its reach and relevance within the business sector while engaging with NGOs and governments to serve as catalyst for a healthier and more productive workforce worldwide.

At the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2013 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, the Alliance will be featured in a private event on scaling up investment in workplace wellness for measurable impact, with a focus on the measurement challenges and opportunities and the issue of competitiveness. The Alliance will also present a vision for the future in collaboration with IHPM.

Authors: Sean Sullivan is Chief Executive Officer of the Institute for Health and Productivity Management. Shahnaz Radjy is Project Manager of the World Economic Forum’s Workplace Wellness Alliance.

Image: People exercise on treadmills REUTERS/Rick Wilking