The Health of Nations: Why Businesses Need to Step Up When it Comes to Health
With the new Prime Minister recommitting to Levelling Up, UK businesses need to step forward to create a more balanced economy. But that can only happen with a healthy population and a healthy workforce. The House sat down with Legal & General’s John Godfrey to hear why he believes health should be on the agenda in every UK boardroom.
Recent months have seen an unprecedented amount of political upheaval. The nation has had three Prime Ministers in rapid succession with some senior cabinet roles seeming to change almost daily. Throughout this process, it has not always been clear where Levelling Up would sit when the dust settled, and a new government was in place.
However, with incoming Prime Minister Rishi Sunak reemphasising the importance of Levelling Up in his speech on the steps of Downing Street, it appears that the 2019 manifesto commitment to address disparities remains high on the government's agenda.
John Godfrey, Director of Levelling Up at Legal & General believes it is absolutely right that this critically important issue remains central to the new government’s programme.
“There has never been any doubt in our mind that Levelling Up had to happen,” he tells us. “But it is incredibly difficult when things keep changing, so consistency is definitely helpful both for businesses and civic leaders.”
As a business tied to long-term investments and patient capital, consistency is clearly something that matters enormously to Legal & General.
But throughout our conversation, it is apparent that Godfrey does not simply see consistency as an end in itself. Instead, he sees it as the foundation for action, providing a basis for businesses to plan, invest, and deliver. In Godfrey’s words, consistency is the prerequisite that allows a business like Legal & General to “do good at scale”.
Central to Godfrey’s vision, and Legal & General’s long-term strategy, is health. Working in partnership with Professor Michael Marmot, Legal & General supported the production and publication of a landmark report earlier this year. 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.
This report places better public health at the heart of the Levelling Up agenda. Godfrey tells us that, unless health disparities are addressed, economic inequalities between individuals, communities, and regions, will remain stubbornly difficult to narrow.
Godfrey is reassured that this message is increasingly accepted at the most senior levels of government.
“It was hugely encouraging that quite a chunk of the Levelling Up White Paper was devoted to health and specifically to increasing healthy life expectancy and reducing inequalities,” he explains. “Better public health goes hand-in-hand with economic activity. In simple terms, ‘health equals wealth.’ That is true at a personal level, community level, and a town or city level.”
With a tight labour market and an ageing UK population, the health of workforces has emerged as a business-critical issue for many UK firms. But Godfrey is equally clear that supporting a healthier population is also a moral and civic responsibility that businesses must work harder to fulfil.
“It is clearly wrong that there is a 20-year discrepancy in years of good health depending on where you live and how much money you’ve got,” he argues. “It is just a terrible outcome. The fortunate thing is it does coincide with the economic arguments. You can do well by doing good. That always makes it easier to do good at scale.”
“Doing good at scale,” is at the heart of much of our conversation. For Legal & General, that aspiration can only be achieved because economic and social benefits overlap so significantly. Godfrey believes that this is understood by other business leaders who are increasingly seeing the impact that health inequalities are having on their balance sheets.
“The nation has a very tight labour market,” he tells us. “We simply cannot afford to have employers losing people unnecessarily in their 50s due to health conditions that potentially could have been avoided.”
He is equally clear that preventing ill health is a responsibility that is shared across a range of partners. “Roughly 70% of health outcomes are dictated by conditions in which people live,” he explains. “There are social causes, - lifestyle, housing, infrastructure, working conditions. When it comes to the determinants that lead to ill health, business has a potentially critical role to play.”
As a major business, Godfrey believes that Legal & General has an important leadership role in encouraging other UK businesses to step up when it comes to health. A key driver for the partnership that resulted in the Marmot Review for Industry was to clearly set out a roadmap to support other UK businesses in addressing this critical subject.
He does see positive signs that this is starting to happen, particularly around the long-neglected issue of mental health. A recent LSE report estimated that mental health costs the UK economy a staggering £118 billion a year, 72% of which results from lost productivity. The scale of that challenge is now driving sector-wide changes in approach when it comes to supporting workforces.
“Where we have seen most change is around mental health,” he explains. “Most companies now recognise that they have to provide appropriate support. It makes people better at their job. It is something the younger workforce expects. Wellbeing is very important to them.”
Whilst confident about the nature of the challenge and some of the solutions, Godfrey does recognise that the complexity of health sector structures can create a real challenge when it comes to business engagement. He identifies a critical role for local government in acting as a “convener” that can connect businesses and local health partners. He praises both Newcastle and Greater Manchester as localities where that coordination function is removing some of the barriers that have historically prevented effective engagement.
“Where the NHS is closely involved with local government it makes it easier to have the right conversations,” he explains. “In some places, the NHS locally is very joined up with the local council. In turn, the local council has good relationships with businesses like ours. You get a kind of coordination effect.”
Such coordination will be critical if we are going to use the expertise and resources of business to address the health disparities that are holding back productivity in some parts of the UK. The inequalities that Levelling Up was intended to address are wide-ranging, engrained, and persistent. Tacking them is a task too big for any one sector. It will require the NHS, different tiers of government, and civic society to collaborate effectively. And, if Godfrey has his way, businesses across the board will step up and play their part too.
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