For years, many companies have been working to reduce their footprint — the negative impact they have on their community and the world. But now, some are taking this movement a step further.

Rather than just reduce negative output, employers are shooting to have a “net positive” impact, which Harvard’s Sustainability and Health Initiative for NetPositive Enterprise Co-Director Eileen McNeely says means that “a company’s impact in the world is more positive than negative.”

Bloomberg/file photo

The net positive movement looks at a company’s impacts across a number of dimensions, particularly its treatment of both humans and the environment. On the human side, wellness programs have been highlighted as a way to provide employees and the community as a whole a healthier and better life.

Wellness programs have traditionally been marketed as a way for employers to reduce healthcare costs and raise retention rates. Yet, despite wellness programs and other engagement strategies, retention rates for millennials are still lower than their older counterparts. The many aspects of wellness programs that only have long-term benefits may not appeal to employers who have high turnover rates and will therefore not see financial benefits.

But if an employee begins to develop better long-term health habits after participating in a wellness program and carries these lessons after they leave, that employer has made a long-term net positive impact on someone’s life, regardless of financial benefits.

“Wellness initiatives are there to help employees foster good behaviors and the hope is that these healthy habits continue even after they leave a company,” says Alan Kohll, president and founder of TotalWellness. “Wellness programs now address things like emotional well-being, mental health and financial wellness which can have a meaningful impact on a person’s long-term health.”

A far reach
The access to information and habit changes also reaches the lives of those close to employees. Friends and family who change eating and exercise habits with an employee also see positive health changes. While increasing the health of employee’s family members can help reduce healthcare costs, it can also build stronger relationships. At a time when many employers are shifting to measure VOI rather than ROI, personal anecdotes provide a look into the many spillover effects these programs can heave.
“We hear a lot of success stories from people emailing our coaches saying things like they got their son or daughter to do a 5k with them,” says Fiona Gathright, president and CEO of Wellness Corporate Solutions, LLC.

And Beth Ratliff, senior vice president of operations and product strategy for onsite program Premise Health, says her organization makes a point to include the community in wellness changes.
“We have health coaches that provide a list of particular products to local stores and then these products are labeled so that when participants go shopping they can pick up the list,” Ratliff says. “We also work with local restaurants and have them identify particular menu items.”

These product identifications also allow non-employees to see what the healthiest food options are. Community members are also welcome to join classes taught on cooking healthy meals. Ratliff says that it’s almost impossible for employees to make real changes to improve their health if their community is not also involved in developing a healthy culture, especially if local stores and restaurants aren’t currently offering healthy options.

Therefore, employee wellness programs that reach employees — even if just for a brief time — may have wide-reaching impacts that can better a community as a whole. “Employers have a shared responsibility in raising employees’ level of wellbeing,” McNeely says. “The spillover effects of making work a really nurturing place are that it’s good for business and it’s good for the world.”

Without healthy and happy employees, the environmental goals of the net positive are unattainable. The two are inseparable, according to SHINE. If companies take care of the humans that work for them, the humans will take care of the world around them. And a less polluted, healthier world leads to better lives for humans in turn.

Morals aside, the net positive movement has also gained traction in an age where the best talent on the market is looking to be hired by companies with strong brands. A net positive brand can draw in better hires and customers as well.

“Competition for talent is huge, so companies are motivated to increase the value of their brand,” McNeely says. “The value of their brand is very much on display. If you’re not treating your workers well people are going to hear about it. If you’re doing something spectacular for the environment or employees, people will pay attention and want to know more.”

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