The Board’s Focus On ‘Health Equity’ Can Spur Business Growth

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Jean Accius, CEO of CHC, shares what boards can do to create healthier communities and what their companies stand to gain from doing so.

ESG continues to challenge corporate boards. Jean C. Accius, the CEO of Creating Healthier Communities (CHC), believes that “health equity” is an ESG issue that deserves more attention from major corporations. CHC is a national nonprofit that removes barriers to good health and equity. Accius maintains that major corporations can reap financial benefits if they work together with local governments, nonprofits and community groups to create an environment where workers and their families live healthier and longer lives.

Corporate Board Member columnist Matthew Scott recently interviewed Accius about what corporate board members can do to create healthier communities and what their companies stand to gain from doing so. Excerpts of the conversation, edited for clarity and length follow.

How do healthier communities translate into business growth?

In this country, there is a 20-year gap, on average, in how long people live. So if you live in one neighborhood, you’re more likely to live 20 years longer than if you live in another. In some communities, it’s even higher. For example, in Washington DC, if you live in Georgetown, you can live up to 97 years, but just a few miles away in Anacostia, life expectancy is 67 years. That’s almost three decades. In New York, if you live in midtown Manhattan, your life expectancy drops 10 years if you move to the Bronx – or six months for every minute on the subway between the two boroughs.

Time is our only non-renewable resource. We can find ways to innovate and produce every other resource on the planet – but once time is spent, there’ si no getting it back. Unfortunately for too many, their lives are cut short solely because of where they live. This translates into lost moments of connection, lost moments of people watching their kids get older, get married, have kids of their own, and continue working for corporations or volunteer in their communities. There are studies that have shown that the differences in life expectancy are costly. According to a report I authored with Economic Impact last year, if we do nothing, differences in life expectancy will cost the United States $1.6 trillion by 2030. That is lost economic opportunity for businesses. That is lost opportunity for economic prosperity which hurts all of us and reduces our country’s competitive advantage on the international stage.

This is why it’s so critically important that businesses think about their role in creating healthier communities. To close the gaps in life expectancy, we need businesses, government, health systems and community-based organizations to come together to crystalize a plan to address these disparities. Those lost years of life expectancy have huge implications economically for business and for our economy. We need to create an environment where every single person in every community can live a longer, healthier life.

So, what can corporate boards do to change the dynamic you’re talking about and create healthier communities? What steps should they take?

There are a couple of things that boards should be thinking about. Boards should understand the nature of their workforce and clearly understand the communities that their workforce represents and what the needs are. I believe companies need to think more systematically about addressing these disparities that exist particularly at the community level because your workers are coming from those communities and there’s an indirect cost to the corporation’s bottom line. For example, for individuals who live in communities where they are lacking adequate resources, healthcare, etc, companies see that showing up in their worker’s healthcare costs. They also see that showing up in lost productivity in many different ways. So as an organization, companies should be thinking about the total health and well-being of their workers and their families and the communities that they represent. How can boards think more intentionally about their corporate social responsibility and ESG plans to define what the company’s role is? Companies need to think about ways they can start to close these health gaps and differences.

Corporations can also start to think more holistically in terms of how they can foster and trigger discussions around creating a longevity and sustainability plan, particularly at the local levels, to bring the silos [business, government and community] together in a way that can solve these issues.

Can you give an example how one or more of these issues that you’ve discussed has been addressed?

When you look at Beaufort Jasper County in South Carolina, it was ranked one of the worst counties in the state of South Carolina 50 years ago and now they’re one of the state’s top performers regarding health services. So, how did they get there? What did they actually do? Well, part of what happened was the leaders in Jasper, in conjunction with their community health centers, came up with a strategy that engaged the schools, local businesses, their chamber of commerce and a range of different stakeholders to come up with a holistic plan with the goal of addressing the health rankings in that community. Now, Beaufort Jasper is one of the top performers, with health services that are offered to many different populations. They even have services that they’re offering to migrant workers.

We’re also seeing some companies in corporate America look at ways to address the need for equity. Deloitte released some research that found that health inequities and this country cost $323 billion just in 2022. And we have the World Economic Forum, which is comprised of some of the most prestigious, influential corporations around the world, that has launched their Global Health Equity Network in which CHC is a member. The group’s goal is to amplify solutions. In fact, they have a framework that includes a “zero gap pledge” for companies to sign which asks them to state exactly what they’re going to do in their companies to reduce health disparities within the next ten years. We cannot afford the status quo. There is a cost to that.

What types of questions should board members ask to get their companies on the road to making some of the changes you mentioned?

There are a couple of things directors can ask. One is, “How are these growing inequities in this country and around the world impacting our business, employees and customers — and what is our role in addressing those impacts?” The second question is, “To what extent are we producing products and services that are exacerbating these inequities or closing these gaps?” In other words, are we producing services that only the top one percent can afford? “Are we thinking about opportunities to create products and services that can ensure broader consumption among a broader base?”

Those are business questions, because if you’re only producing products and services that only a shrinking segment of the population can afford moving forward, that can potentially become a risk to your business model long term. So, I think it’s critically important from a strategy perspective, that as part of the risk mitigation plans of any organization, that boards are thinking about and have a plan to mitigate against the growing inequality, whether it’s the U.S. or around the world, because that will have huge implications to their business model – for better or worse.

How do healthier communities impact a corporation financially and improve its business performance?

When you have a healthier community, you have a healthier workforce. A healthier workforce becomes a more highly productive workforce. Companies will likely see greater employee satisfaction, productivity and innovation while seeing lower costs of health care, as well as lower costs associated with employee retention, and turnover.

So, how can companies help CHC further its work creating healthier communities across the globe?

Creating Healthier Communities has been around for nearly 70 years. We’re a nationwide nonprofit, dedicated to addressing the barriers to health and ensuring that every resident in every neighborhood has an opportunity to live a longer, healthier, more productive life.

We support more than 5,000 nonprofits every year and work with hundreds of businesses, foundations and organizations, mobilizing and providing volunteer support of millions of employees. We’ve driven billions of dollars to high-impact nonprofits. We are a partner, convener and connector that gives the community a voice. And we partner with business, nonprofits, philanthropy and other sectors and industries around closing health gaps.

We can help corporations think about how they can make a meaningful difference in communities. We can help them find solutions that might be scalable because we are on the ground across the country working with thousands of non-profits on an annual basis on addressing the barriers to health and equity. So, if companies are looking for ways to engage their employees around addressing the barriers to health, we can work with them to develop campaigns and initiatives that can galvanize their employees around this important issue.

And then finally, for corporations, for directors and members of boards, and for leaders in the C-suite, this is an opportunity to think about the health of your organization – the physical, mental and emotional health of your workforce, the financial health of your organization – and directly relate that to the ways in which we can make a meaningful difference in the communities in which your employees live, eat, play, pray and of course work.

We are on this mission to assure that we can close those gaps so that every single person has an opportunity to thrive.

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