Recent research shows that among Fortune 500 companies, while over two-thirds of these companies have environmental strategies and goals for sustainability, very few of them have any proactive work or goals around health. The only corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy where sustainability and health are equal is as a focus of philanthropic giving.
Many companies now recognize the dire consequences of climate change if we do not make drastic changes, but health is still regarded as a salient issue on a wider scale only when virus outbreaks or humanitarian disasters occur. “Health”¹ is more pervasive than one crisis and more expansive than a hospital visit or a way of eating: it is an important, ongoing social issue that affects people and their communities. Companies need strategies, goals and metrics around health, because by not investing in solutions and wellness now, the long-term economic and societal costs will only continue to rise.
Governments should be investing in universal health coverage, research and development and global health. But clearly, governments can’t do it all: that’s why Canada has thousands of health-related charities. In Canada, 44% of adults have at least one of the most common chronic conditions; in Ontario these cause two-thirds of deaths and at least $10.5 billion in direct healthcare costs annually. Over the years I worked in global health policy, I saw institutional HIV treatment targets reach higher, the needs grow greater and funding become proportionally smaller for its scope. These kinds of health concerns, however, don’t have to be tackled by the public sector alone.
Institutions and the public sector are reaching out to the private sector to narrow the gap in funding and expertise, sometimes in innovative ways. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria needed USD$1 billion in pledges from private donors and companies, apart from governments as its main source, to reach its most recent funding goal. It has also established relationships with companies to leverage logistical, supply chain, financial management and marketing expertise to build capacity and efficiency and to pilot and scale technology to improve detection and treatment. Hospitals are creating in-house healthcare innovation labs to develop technological solutions to their problems. Governments seek pharmaceutical donations and deals (although these are controversial). Innovative financing mechanisms are used to pool public and private money to fund enterprises, interventions and value chains in order to catalyze and scale health-related solutions.
For a company to engage in health initiatives within a CSR strategy, it doesn’t need to provide health-related products or services to make its case for investing; also, a company that provides health-related products or services shouldn’t rely on the idea that through their output alone they’ve done their part. There is a wide range of opportunities through which a company can affect health outcomes, from the typical grand gestures of funding equipment for hospitals and donations of medical supplies to employee wellness and providing sector expertise to non-profits, all undertaken either locally or globally.
When evaluating how to approach health within a CSR strategy, companies can look to three spheres of influence: internal, community and global. Initiatives can then be broken down into types of corporate responsibility: philanthropy, integration and innovation. The chart below shows what kinds of activities could take place at the intersection of each sphere and type.
In practice, corporate social responsibility for health can looking like the following:
- Microsoft offers matching donations and volunteer hours (internal/philanthropy)
- Connected.io offers employees generous vacation, fitness allowance, leave, snacks and food (internal/integration)
- Forster Communications offers mental & physical health training and incentives, building an anti-stigma culture (internal/innovation)
- CIBC Run for the Cure raises funds for breast cancer (community/philanthropy)
- Novo Nordisk supports local health systems and improves distribution to increase reach of insulin sales (community/integration)
- Cemex’s Patrimonio Hoy program supports low-income housing which includes measures for physical and psychological health outcomes (community/innovation)
- Beko’s Eat Like a Pro does awareness-raising for healthy eating habits for kids (global/philanthropy)
- Ecobank provides financial training and financial solutions for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (global/integration)
- Tech & marketing companies are partnering with Nesta’s Acute Malnutrition Prevention Lab to create and scale new solutions (global/innovation)
CSR strategies shouldn’t neglect the impact a company can have on the health of its employees, community and beyond. It’s time for companies to take a wider view to how they can contribute to health prevention, care and treatment in support of better health outcomes for everyone.
¹Here I am using “health” to encompass public health, population health, global health and health care. Also, health is just not a case of physical wellness or illness, but is also affected by social determinants of health: the economic and social conditions that influence health, like income, education level, employment situation, housing and food security. For example, changes in a person’s employment status or the level of benefits provided at a workplace, could positively or negatively affect their health outcomes.
Corporate Social Responsibility and Population Health (Health Science Journal)