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Good health is good business. Here's why

In the wake of COVID-19, business leaders cant wait to get back to "normal." But research shows there are lasting economic benefits to keeping a focus on health, write Jaana Remes and Shubham Singhal in Fortune.

COVID-19 has forced health onto the agenda of every business around the world. Companies must address health and safety risks as health regulations and market conditions continue to shift. It’s understandable that many business leaders can’t wait to get back to “normal.” But retaining a focus on health can deliver lasting economic benefits.

Here’s why: The pandemic and its effects are forecast to cost the global economy up to 8% in real gross domestic product this year alone, but each year poor health costs twice as much, around 15% of global real GDP from premature deaths and lost productive potential.

Now consider the flip side: Investing in better health can boost the economy and increase productive capacity now when we most need it. Companies would be big beneficiaries. Sickness absences would decline; healthier workers would be less distracted by managing their (or their loved ones’) conditions; and fewer workers would retire early because of health conditions. A healthier workforce would translate into lower health care costs. And what’s more, healthier aging would expand both the future workforce and consumption as fewer people die prematurely and healthier older consumers continue to fuel demand.

At the McKinsey Global Institute, we spent the past year researching what it would take to make the world’s population healthier and then sizing the potential social and economic benefits. We found that by using known interventions more widely, things like adopting healthy behaviors, expanding access to primary care, and improved adherence to medication, the global disease burden could be reduced by 40% over the next two decades.

The individual health benefits would be tremendous: A 65-year-old in 2040 could be as healthy as a 55-year-old today; infant mortality would decline by 65%; the health inequity gap would narrow; and 230 million more people would be alive by 2040.

The economy would get a much-needed boost. Adding up all the ways better health lifts the economy, we estimated that better health could increase global GDP by $12 trillion in 2040—an 8% boost, or 0.4% faster growth a year.

And investing in health produces a high economic return. For every $1 invested, we found an incremental economic benefit of $2 to $4. In higher income countries, implementation costs could be more than offset by productivity gains in health care delivery. Emerging economies will continue to need more investment to build out their health infrastructure.

Our research leaves us with a strong conviction: Improving health has the potential to be a societal and economic game changer. After all, few investments deliver against so many of today’s social needs, substantially improving well-being and reducing inequity, while also delivering an impressive shot in the arm to the global economy—and all with a high return on investment.

So what can companies do? Focus on three areas: Invest in the short- and long-term health of their employees; create inclusive work environments; and actively contribute to the development of healthy communities.

There are many ways to invest in the health of your workforce. A good place to start is conventional occupational health and safety, yet that isn’t enough. In today’s work environment occupational risks are increasingly related to mental health stressors, sleep health, and high levels of sedentariness. Research shows that chronic conditions including low-back pain, mental health, and migraines can reduce the productivity of workers by up to 5%. So improving workplace health matters.

Many companies are already experimenting with this. Citibank is one example. Its health programs include rewards for participating in health assessments, sustaining health activities, and reaching health goals; support for health improvement including organized fitness-related events and challenges; and access to health programs such as WW at Work and health coaching.

Some companies have found low-cost and relatively simple health promotion strategies can make a difference to productivity. For example, a public sector employer in Middlesborough, in the United Kingdom, used health assessment questionnaires to understand the needs of staff and codeveloped a flexible and multifaceted health promotion toolkit. This program included family days, team-building days, and health walks. This led to a 44% reduction in sickness absence, from an average of 4.3 days per employee a year to 2.4 days.

Next, consider promoting more inclusive work environments. Employers that adapt the workplace to take advantage of changing demographics often benefit from higher levels of retention. This also means offering (re)training, creating a culture that addresses discrimination, offering assistive technologies, and making buildings accessible to people with mobility challenges. We also find that workplaces that offer flexible working practices help informal caregivers to stay in work.

One example is BMW. Managers at a BMW car production plant in Dingolfing, Germany, worked with employees to redesign the production line to address tasks that older workers found troublesome. The focus was on low-cost ergonomic changes that reduced physical stress. Productivity on the adapted line was equal to equivalent lines with a younger workforce age mix by volume, quality was higher, and sickness absence was below the plant average. The program has been replicated at BMW plants elsewhere.

Finally, consider fostering healthy communities. This might mean assessing your company’s health “footprint,” the ways in which activities contribute to the health outcomes of individuals, communities, and whole populations, and making health impact a priority within wider corporate social responsibility programs. For example, some global companies have included commitments to provide clean water, hygiene, and sanitation for their employees and, in some instances, their partners and suppliers, in water-stressed regions of the world.

Our research shows that 70% of actions to improve health happen before a sick patient seeks care. Half of that comes from living in healthier environments, societies, and workplaces that encourage healthy behaviors and mindsets. Long-term prevention and health promotion cannot simply be left to health care providers or health care systems. It is quite literally everybody’s business. And just plain good business at that.

This article first appeared in Fortune.