Business can boost productivity by playing a more active role in improving the nation’s health, and companies should ensure that employees, contractors and workers are able to live healthy lives, say health experts.
A review published by a new joint initiative between University College London’s Institute of Health Equity, led by Professor Sir Michael Marmot, an international expert in the links between socio-economic status and health, and financial services group Legal & General, says responsibility for tackling the conditions that affect life expectancy should not be confined to government and civil society.
Businesses “affect the health of their employees and suppliers, through the pay and benefits they offer, through hours and job security, and through the conditions of work”, the IHE and L&G argue in the report. It adds that the health of clients, customers and shareholders is also affected through the products and services they provide and how their investments are held.
UK life expectancy declined by one year during the pandemic. Before 2010, lives had been lengthening by about a year every four years, Marmot said. “If you drop a year, you’ve wiped out four years of improvement, and that drop in life expectancy was bigger in the UK than in most other countries,” he said.
The review suggests it is in companies’ self interest to take a more active role in promoting better health. Ill health is responsible for 30 per cent of the shortfall in productivity in northern England compared with the rest of the country, the authors noted.
Businesses “are more productive if workforces are physically and mentally well and at a time of tight labour markets, it is not just a human tragedy but a lost opportunity if experienced workers are forced to leave the workforce for health reasons before they want to”, says the report.
The IHE and L&G say health should be added to the environmental, social and governance agenda for businesses, drawing a parallel with the climate change movement, in which “trillions of pounds of institutional investment is lining up to support net zero”.
Marmot said: “Whereas in the past, we might have thought that there was some kind of tussle between improving health and the environment on the one hand, and business with its focus on profits on the other . . . there’s not a tussle. We’ve got a common and shared agenda.”
He cited a campaign, backed by L&G, to persuade Sainsbury’s, the supermarket chain, to introduce a “real living wage” for all workers. The company said: “We pay more than many of our competitors and across the board colleague feedback has been positive to our pay review, which represents a £100mn investment and exceeds the national living wage and the national real living wage.”
“P&O provides a case study of how not to do it,” Marmot added. He criticised the company, which last month sacked nearly 800 UK-based sailors in order to replace them with cheaper agency labour, for not involving employees in key decisions, paying less than the real living wage and “putting profit before all other considerations”.
Nigel Wilson, chief executive of L&G, said employees were attracted by the idea of “a business with purpose”, suggesting this had enabled his organisation to retain, and improve the quality of, staff. “We earn probably one of the highest return on equities in the financial services industry” while operating a healthy working environment, he added.