Health and Healthcare Systems

How can workplace health equity lead to a fair and just society?

Image: Emma Simpson/Unsplash

Nancy Brown
Chief Executive Officer, American Heart Association
Joe Ucuzoglu
Global Chief Executive Officer, Deloitte
Johnny C. Taylor Jr.
President and Chief Executive Officer, Society for Human Resource Management
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  • Business leaders and employers can play a key role in promoting health equity and tackling health disparities in the workforce.
  • In the USA alone, health disparities lead to roughly $320 billion in excess medical costs, which has massive implications for society.
  • A healthier, more equitable workforce is both good for society and businesses, leading to a healthier and more productive workforce.

Health equity has become a cross-sector priority around many parts of the globe over the past several years, highlighting the role that each organization should play in helping create a society in which each person has the opportunity to live a healthy life. Business leaders and other employers across industries, sectors, and geographies around the world have the potential to help impact change – especially in addressing health disparities within the workforce.

As laid out in the Global Health Equity Network’s Business Case for Health Equity, there can be enormous implications for inequitable workforce health. In Africa, ill health and premature mortality cost the continent nearly $3 trillion in 2015. In the United States, there are roughly $320 billion in excess medical costs each year due to health disparities. These statistics do not account for the impact of lost productivity from poor health and workplace injuries on business outcomes. For example, studies have estimated that employees face a 21.5% productivity loss if they experience depression, and a 13% productivity loss if they experience chronic pain. Even worse, 2.78 million people worldwide die annually in workplace-related accidents.

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Addressing these challenges by considering employees’ holistic health and well-being can lead to more productive, healthy, and engaged teams across organizations. In turn, companies can improve recruitment and retention, drive market success, and protect their long-term sustainability and resilience.

The result of concerted action can not only be transformative for employers – it can also have a huge impact on society. Optimizing the workplace can help create equitable opportunities for each person to live a healthy life regardless of their economic circumstances. In turn, it is likely that public health crises would not disproportionately impact under-resourced individuals and communities and disparities in life expectancy among and within countries could be reduced or possibly eliminated.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing to improve healthcare systems?

A moral obligation and a business imperative

Approximately 3.6 billion people are employed worldwide, according to the International Labour Organization, providing an opportunity for business leaders to help make a positive difference within the workforce. If employers and industry leaders take proactive steps to help address both the upstream drivers of health and their employees’ access to quality health care, they may be able to strengthen their relationships with their employees and elevate their workforce’s overall mental and physical health.

This is not only the right thing to do for society, but it can also be good for business. Consider psychological safety as one key aspect of health and well-being. According to a recent Gallup workplace report, employee stress reached an all-time high in 2021 with 44% of employees surveyed saying they experienced “a lot of stress” the previous day. Studies also show that employee satisfaction with the nature of their work is the strongest predictor for psychological distress, sleep disorders, headaches and gastrointestinal problems. Moreover, investing in the health and well-being of employees can help employers increase productivity, reduce their health care costs, and decrease financial losses due to absenteeism, low employee engagement, and high employee turnover.

If leaders take bold, broad action to help address psychological health and many other aspects of health, we can achieve better health within our organizations, in our communities, and ultimately throughout the world. To help achieve this, employers should offer quality benefits, comprehensive health and well-being programs, and safe workspaces which can influence employees' extrinsic and intrinsic job satisfaction levels within their organization. But how can we scale solutions to help make an impact?

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How is the World Economic Forum bringing data-driven healthcare to life?

Empowering leaders to take bold, broad action

The World Economic Forum's "Zero Health Gaps Pledge" aims to bring together cross-industry leaders to help activate change that can create a healthier, fairer world. To help advance this goal, the American Heart Association’s Health Equity in the Workforce initiative, in collaboration with the Deloitte Health Equity Institute and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Foundation, will develop and scale tools and resources, convene employers and industry leaders, and help accelerate science-backed employer actions to enable positive health and well-being outcomes that can help advance health equity.

This collaboration with employers and industry leaders will help us create a comprehensive roadmap and resources to advance health equity in the workforce and surrounding communities. Leveraging the latest science and industry practice, we can develop a playbook of employer strategies—to help remove barriers to health and enable equitable health opportunities for employees. Through community activation, we can scale the impact of our offerings. These efforts can help strengthen resilience and inclusivity and foster a global economy that benefits each person.

By working together, employers can help reduce health inequities that emerge based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability, and other factors to help create a more equitable workplace. Through collaboration with government entities, community health organizations, and other businesses, employers can create strategies to help increase fairness in hiring, onboarding, career development, and promotion.

Health equity is not just a moral obligation, it can also be a business imperative. We urge business leaders to take action to help reduce health inequities for their employees, communities, and the bottom line. Now is the time to act to help improve each person’s chance to thrive.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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