Prioritising Public Health as a Responsible and Inclusive Business Strategy in Asia
Our world changed overnight with the coronavirus outbreak. The rising death toll, combined with the economic impact to businesses of all sizes has shaken people to their core.
The outbreak has also upended traditional work practices, including the expectations of what role a company should play in wider society during the pandemic. In August 2019, the Business Roundtable released a statement endorsing the notion that businesses are responsible not only for shareholders, but also for the benefits of stakeholders such as employees and customers. The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer Spring Update further highlighted statistics which showed that the general population put their trust in both the Government and businesses to act in solving the global health crisis. Amidst the crisis, workplaces and organisations are being seen as part of the collective effort to promote better health among their workforces.
Having good physical and mental health, which many people might have taken for granted before the pandemic, is now under the spotlight because of the spread of COVID-19. Even more so, the buzzword of 2020, “public health”, has never garnered so much attention. A Google search trend for the phrase “What is Public Health?” between the start of 2020 to 31 August of the same year, with 100 as peak popularity, illustrates a surge of interest in understanding what public health is (see figure 1).
Source: Google Trends
What is public health, and what role does it play in the workplace?
According to the World Health Organisation, public health by definition is “the art and science of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting health through the organized efforts of society”. As the definition suggests, it is a discipline that encompasses both the human side of health such as health promotion and social behaviour, as well as the data driven part of the discipline such as epidemiology and biostatistics, which leverages statistical science to understand determinants of disease, to prevent and manage disease, to analyse biomedical issues, and to further develop public health research.
Implementations of public health measures have helped create huge strides such as extending life expectancy and reducing morbidity. While most people might not argue with the notion that one’s surrounding environment plays a huge role in shaping one’s health, most people do not really expect their workplaces to actively promote their health. As a result, taking care of employee physical and psychological health was seldomly being treated as a top priority, and most workplaces usually do the bare minimum, or frame it as a risk that needs to be managed instead of an opportunity for active health promotion.
The pandemic has catalysed some companies to take employee wellbeing more seriously. Community Business has examined health and wellbeing topics in the workplace context, including Embracing Workplace Mental Health in Asia, specifically in up and rising markets like the Philippines, as well as Balancing Career and Caregiving in Asia – The Role of Companies. However, as workforces in Asia are becoming more diverse, health and wellbeing needs will also be different depending on variables such as work function, age, gender, culture, race and ethnicity, sexual orientations, so on and so forth, and companies will need to start considering an inclusive approach towards employee physical and psychological health. In a similar vein, the World Health Organisation posits that “an integrated response to the specific health needs of working populations should encompass...all representatives of the workplace community”.
On the Horizon: Health and Wellbeing Equity in The Workforce
As we look into the future, companies might need to address health and wellbeing equity issues in their workforce. Health and wellbeing equity comes in different sizes and shapes. While some might show up in the form of job nature and function, others might stem from identities that one belongs to. The pandemic has exposed the health and wellbeing inequity suffered by certain groups within their staff members, and a responsible and inclusive business practice means it is necessary to provide strategies and care as a function of employee needs. For example, frontline members of a bank might still need to continue operation and conduct client facing duties while putting their health at risk. At the same time, employees at the backend office could work from home and shield themselves from risks. Companies might want to rethink how to best allocate resources such as personal protective equipment (PPE) depending on functions that different employees belong to. Another example could be the role of caregivers and mental wellbeing. Caregiving, either for older family members or the younger generation, could be a stressful task. Since most female workers also assume the role of caregivers, companies might want to consider ways to make sure their female workers could continue to advance their career while balancing caregiving duties and sustaining their health and wellbeing.
Short Term: Policies to Ensure Safe Return to Work
As the pandemic slows in some countries in the APAC region, business leaders are starting to consider bringing their workers back to the offices. A recent study conducted by Korn Ferry surveyed 1,000 professionals and found that 53% expected to be back in their offices by year’s end. However, another survey by the Pacific Business Group for Health, with data from 15 major employers that collectively employ about 2.6 million people, suggested that more than 50% of respondents had decided to postpone their back-to-work plans partly because workers were refusing to return to the office. Business leaders will need to be thoughtful about how to facilitate return to work in a cautious manner - one that the wider staff feels comfortable to do so. Some questions to consider while putting together plans of return to work:
How comprehensive is your “Return to Work” policy? Have you considered the specific needs of employees as a function of their job nature?
What is your timeline of returning to work? How flexible and agile is it?
How are you signposting your “Return to Work” policies? How transparent do you think your internal communications are?
How would your organisation allocate resources to protect your workers? For example, would PPE still be available even if the pandemic subsides? Would flexible working policies still be in place?
Long Term: Build the Culture of Health and Prioritise Public Health as a Responsible and Inclusive Corporate Strategy
Looking into the future, companies might want to reconsider their priorities in terms of keeping their employees healthy and well. Long-term corporate strategy that prioritises employee physical and mental health could yield tangible benefits such as higher productivity, attract talents who place similar value on health and wellbeing, as well as intangible benefits like building up a positive reputation and differentiating oneself from competitors. Some questions to consider when putting together a strategy:
What is the leadership’s current stance on physical and mental health among the workforce?
Is there a need to promote better physical and emotional wellbeing among the workforce? Any health surveillance data to support specific needs?
Does your organisation have any teams and infrastructures around occupational safety and health? If so, how critical are they as you are making your business decisions?
How does your organisation promote healthy lifestyle among the workforce?
About the Author: Michael Chan, Programme Manager, Responsible Business