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Businesses are being urged to join forces to address health issues, whether for their workforce, their consumers or the wider community.
Health needs to become as central to the business agenda as climate change, a discussion at the launch of the Business Framework for Health heard today.
The launch comes at a timely moment in the middle of the pandemic where there has been much focus on health issues, but also on growing inequalities and how they impact health. It brought calls for changing the narrative so that we view health not as a cost to business so much as an opportunity and so that we focus more on health span rather than life span.
The event was hosted by the CBI and Business for Health, a business-led coalition of socially responsible employers, purchasers, investors and innovators supporting long-term sustainable innovation and investment in preventative health and care.
The framework has won support not just from businesses and other organisations, but also from Professor Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer. It aims to provide businesses with the tools to contribute to improved health for their employees and the wider community.
The initiative grew out of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Longevity. It is described as being ‘for business, organised by business and in the interests of business’ and draws on work done by businesses on climate change. It has three pillars. The first is to address the direct impact of health on employees, described as ‘putting the health back into health and safety’, and is similar to the work employers do around addressing the impact of their carbon emissions.
Business benefits include reducing absence rates – including for mental ill health. Mental health problems at work are estimated to cost the UK almost £35 billion a year. Given the gap between rich and poor is widening as a result of the pandemic and given the country’s skills shortage, employers cannot afford to have large chunks of the workforce unable to work from their mid-50s, the event heard.
The second pillar relates to the goods and services businesses provide and could enable companies to get ahead of health regulations, such as the 2018 sugar tax. Examples were cited including a shareholder resolution coordinated by ShareAction to get Tesco to sell more healthy food which led to Tesco acting in advance of the AGM and Greggs’ decision to bring out its successful vegan sausage roll.
The third pillar relates to businesses’ broader social influence and covers issues such as clean air, healthier homes and health inequalities. Business For Health is working with health inequalities expert Professor Michael Marmot on the latter. The event heard, for instance, the stark difference in the percentage of people not working due to health-related issues in different regions of the country, with the numbers in Hartlepool more than double those in Wokingham in Surrey.
Tina Woods, Secretariat Manage at the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Longevity, spoke about the work that went into producing the three pillars, including a CBI survey with a wide range of companies in May and a series of roundtables in June. She said there was “a significant appetite for change” among businesses on the health agenda, particularly in light of the pandemic. She outlined short term milestones for the next year, medium term goals for 2022-2024 and longer term plans [2024-2035]. While all businesses have a role to play in the health agenda, she said it is important to drill down to understand the different health issues in particular sectors.
Over the next year, Business for Health will focus on identifying research needs and gaps, for instance, understanding the links between improved healthy life expectancy and improved productivity. They are working with academics, government and organisations such as Business in the Community on this. Areas of interest include workforce health, including mental health, the food system, community resilience, data and innovation [a data framework will be published next month] and getting the public and private sector to collaborate better.
They are calling for businesses and others to join the group to share best practice and research and to help them to develop a Business Index to measure business contribution to health.
Speakers emphasised the business case for supporting the initiative. For instance, 34 per cent of the UK population will be over 50 by 2050. Moreover, over 50s make up a large proportion of consumer spending, accounting for more than half of the money spent in G20 countries. They also make up a large part of the volunteer workforce. Yet Covid has shown starkly the health differences between richer and poorer regions, for instance, Covid mortality rates in Blackburn in Lancashire are five times higher than those in South Cambridgeshire.
The launch drew a lot of interest from those working on health issues. Jessica Attard, who leads ShareAction’s work on health and healthy diets, said investors could do much more to drive better health outcomes and that there was an appetite for a more holistic approach. She said this was a trend “that is likely to build”. Dr Annabel Bentley, Chief Medical Officer at AXA Health, spoke of the need to make health a boardroom priority and said Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance [ESG] should include health. “It should be HESG,” she stated.