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Health Means Wealth: Exploring the business of health equity

6 min read Partner content

Health is a critical factor in driving social and economic wellbeing and has a vital role to play as we work to help the UK ’level up’. Much current policy focuses on how government and the NHS can reduce health inequity. But what is the role that UK business should be playing?

With an ageing UK population and a tighter post-Brexit labour market, the health of workforces has emerged as a business-critical issue for many UK firms.  

However, alongside the responsibility they have for staff, there is also a growing awareness that when it comes to health, businesses may also have a broader role to play.

As a result, some business leaders are increasingly arguing that firms doing more to address wider health impacts will be critical, particularly if the UK is to successfully narrow the persistent economic gaps between different parts of the country.

“Put quite simply, unless we address health inequalities, levelling up will not happen,” John Godfrey, Director of Levelling Up for L&G, tells us. “Devolved authorities in places including Greater Manchester and the West Midlands are providing a real locus for businesses to engage with political leaders to develop new shared approaches. Businesses need to step up and be part of those conversations.”

Those local-level partnerships are key if businesses are to engage effectively with partners to develop solutions that reflect the challenges that specific parts of the UK face. And, although Godfrey welcomes a growing awareness of the important role that UK firms can play, he is also clear that much more needs to be done.

“If you go back a couple of decades, providing a healthy workforce for a business was seen as ‘someone else’s job’”, Godfrey tells us. “But Covid proved that model simply doesn’t work anymore. The stark reality is that businesses have an economic, civic, and moral responsibility to understand the way that they intersect with issues around health.”

The evidence base for businesses to engage in health is growing. Last year, working in partnership with Professor Michael Marmot, L&G supported the production and publication of a landmark report that looked at health and business. The Business of Health Equity: The Marmot Review for Industry examined how businesses affect the nation’s health, and what they can do to improve it. 

The Review is wide-ranging, reflecting the complex way that health and business intersect. It does not just look at the role that businesses play as employers. It also considers how the products and services businesses provide contribute both positively and negatively to the health of customers and wider society.

Alexander Stafford MP, who Chairs the Environmental, Social and Governance APPG and sits on the BEIS Select Committee, believes that the report sets out a clear rationale for why UK firms should be focusing on contributing to better population health.

“This report clearly demonstrates the impact that businesses have on the health of their employees, customers, and clients,” he tells PoliticsHome. “It is now up to firms, regulators, and legislators to ensure that health equity becomes a core consideration for businesses of all sizes and forms.”

The challenges created by an ageing workforce have accelerated the responses from businesses and government alike. The recent Budget announced several measures designed to keep workers active for longer. But Godfrey tells us that those measures will only succeed if businesses step forward and recognise the important contribution they can make. 

“Our health is not determined by the treatments we access when we are sick. It is shaped by the conditions in which we all grow, live, work and age,” he explains. “That means that all of us have a role to play in trying to make sure that those conditions are as fair as possible. The way businesses work, how they support staff, and how they engage with their locality are all absolutely key to that.”

What the Marmot Review illustrates, is that business involvement in health equity should no longer be sidelined at the periphery of discussions. Just as ESG has mainstreamed activities that address other critical issues such as climate change, some MPs are now convinced that health now needs to make a similar transition.

Alexander Stafford MP told PoliticsHome that he believes health should feature much more prominently in mainstream UK boardroom discussions about ESG.

“Health equity is the new frontier for what it means for a business to be socially sustainable,” he explains. “Not only are healthy employees more productive, which directly benefits the company, this also beneficially impacts the community and wider society as a whole.”

Mark Garnier MP, who is a member of the Corporate Responsibility APPG and a former chair of the Corporate Governance APPG, shares his colleague’s view. He believes that companies that actively engage in the health agenda will ultimately see business benefits.

“We already know that businesses that look after their staff at a level higher than legally required do well,” he tells us. “One would hope that any business that sees ESG as a good idea will already look after their staff well. However, from the point of view of investors choosing better businesses, it sounds like a good idea.”

Talking about the role business can play in better health is far from new. Victorian businessmen like Joseph Rowntree and Titus Salt recognised that improving the housing conditions of their workforces was a core part of the way they ran their businesses. It is a legacy that the UK now needs to build upon.

“The first legislation looking at health and safety at work was passed over 200 years ago,” says Godfrey. “Since then, there have been many more pieces of legislation, but the focus has always been more on safety than on health. The principle of businesses having a role to play is actually well-established. The challenge now is for us to do more.”

Sir Stephen Timms MP, who chairs the Work and Pensions Select Committee, told PoliticsHome that agencies like the Health and Safety Executive will have a critical role to play in helping businesses maintain the health and wellbeing of employees.

“Businesses can have a profound impact on employee health through the working conditions they provide – and through the pay they offer and the hours of work they require,” he explains. “Taking health and safety seriously, and improving employee health, is obviously good for employees, but is also likely to boost workforce productivity.”

It is a message that John Godfrey hopes will inspire businesses from across the UK to do more to actively engage in promoting health across everything that they do.

“Making health a mainstream part of business activities requires a fundamental shift in mindset,” Godfrey explains. “There is no tension between delivering economic and social benefits. Contributing to better workforce and population health ultimately benefits the bottom line for UK businesses.”

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