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How the Business Community Can be a Force for Public Health

Businesses are recognizing the need to promote the health and well-being of their employees and the communities they serve now more than ever. There is no better example of this than the COVID-19 pandemic, during which business operations have taken unprecedented steps to partner with public health and clinical organizations to support the pandemic response. Yet, many of these actions may be temporary. The health and business sectors have a critical opportunity to build on the momentum sparked by the COVID-19 crisis to create more sustainable partnerships and initiatives to promote health. The business community can and should be a force for promoting the health of its employees and communities over the long term.

The ways in which businesses have rallied during COVID-19, finding innovative ways to support the pandemic response, have highlighted why businesses should be invested in public health. Over the past year, some corporations contributed infrastructure, technology, or production line capacity to support the manufacturing and distribution of critical supplies. For example, several automotive companies, including Ford and General Motors, partnered with health care organizations to manufacture ventilators. In Washington state, Providence St. Joseph Health partnered with a local furniture factory to produce personal protective equipment for health care workers. Other companies lent their expertise to improve coordination or operations for testing and vaccination. Silicon Slopes, a group of startups and technology organizations in Utah, provided technological support to the state government to increase testing capacity. In North Carolina, Honeywell has been leading a public-private partnership with the state to support vaccination, with plans to set up vaccination sites in sports stadiums.

The Biden administration recently acted to encourage even greater participation of corporations in the pandemic response. On February 26, 2021, the administration announced a new partnership with major corporations and business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, the National Association of Manufacturers, and other business leaders. Through the new partnership, the Biden administration enlisted the help of corporations in promoting safe public health practices, boosting public health messaging, and improving access to vaccination. Under this effort, companies committed to providing employees with paid time off to get the vaccine, as well as developing novel ways to lend their expertise to the cause.

The pandemic makes clear why businesses have a vested interest in the health of their employees, consumers, and communities. Yet this was true before the pandemic, too, and it will remain true after the emergency subsides. Public health and the economy are closely linked. In 2016, chronic diseases among Americans were estimated to cost $2.6 trillion in lost economic productivity. Businesses suffer without healthy workers and a healthy customer base to buy their products and services. Alternatively, they can attract consumers and loyal employees by demonstrating their company’s commitment to health and well-being. While the mobilization of the business community during COVID-19 has been encouraging, businesses have an important role in promoting health during non-emergencies, as well. Private companies have the money, resources, and staffing to elevate public health efforts to a new level. During a time of heightened partisanship, many private companies with non-partisan messaging have the trust of their employees and communities.

Recently, de Beaumont Foundation released a report that outlines specific ways businesses can promote health in light of public health infrastructure weaknesses highlighted by COVID-19. This publication builds off of a 2019 report written in collaboration with the Bipartisan Policy Center. In the 2021 report, Seven Ways Businesses Can Align with Public Health for Bold Action and Innovation, the authors explain current challenges in partnership and opportunities for immediate action in aligning business and health. The report outlines specific action steps that businesses can take to promote health inside and outside their company. To promote health within their own workplace, businesses can provide paid sick leave, prioritize mental health and work-life balance, and provide livable wages. They can consider establishing a chief health officer to mitigate health risks and identify initiatives to improve the well-being of their workers over the long term. To promote health in their local communities, businesses can support the efforts of local public health agencies, get involved in local community planning meetings, and amplify public health messaging. Finally, at the federal level, businesses can play an advocacy role in strengthening public health infrastructure and workforce. For businesses looking to extend their involvement in health issues beyond the purview of the pandemic, de Beaumont’s report provides a valuable blueprint. And for businesses looking for a collaborating partner, BPC’s report lays out the value proposition for working with local public health departments.

Moving forward, we must tie business and public health interests to improve community and economic conditions. Small businesses, large corporations, and general enterprises are well-positioned to expand the reach and impact of public health messaging in their communities while developing social responsibility models across several areas affecting their employees’ health and the community at large. The pandemic has shown us how much progress can be made when businesses team up with their public health agencies.

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