In Fulton County, Ga., local businesses wanting to reduce health care costs and employee absenteeism zeroed in on an unlikely foe: mold. They partnered with a local health coalition to reduce the common in-home trigger of asthma attacks, which too often sent their workers to the ER, often as a caretaker for a suffering child. Within four months, ER visits had dropped by 89% among survey respondents. Child sick days had been cut in half.

With the full implementation of the Affordable Care Act just weeks away, businesses face a new health care landscape. Business leaders must make critical decisions about complying with the law and covering workers – all while trying to control health care costs. One strategy is more important than ever: Smart investments in disease prevention, and keeping employees healthy in the first place, will pay off. 

This means moving beyond just worksite wellness to invest in building health outside office walls and in the community. This isn’t charity or good will, but a smart business strategy - and it’s time to scale up and replicate these efforts.

Businesses are getting involved because they can’t afford not to: 50% of company profits go toward health care costs.  This is a bitter pill to swallow when two-thirds of the U.S. workforce is either overweight or obese; half is both overweight and has at least one chronic health problem. The cost to employers of obesity alone among full-time employees is $73.1 billion a year. Seventy five percent of health care costs in the U.S. are attributable to preventable conditions.

The ACA encourages businesses to implement workplace wellness programs, and this can be an important part of the solution. Some programs have reduced sick leave, medical costs and workers comp by as much as 25% each. 

But what happens when employees go home can influence their health even more – and can undermine workplace investments in a healthy workforce.  After all, the indoor mold that was triggering asthma attacks in Fulton County wasn't at the office. Andrew Webber, CEO of the National Business Coalition on Health, said it best: “Business leaders must come to understand that they can do everything right to influence the health and productivity of their captured workforce at the worksite, but if that same workforce lives in unhealthy communities, employer investments can be lost or certainly weakened.”

If workers live in safe neighborhoods, with parks and green spaces, they are more likely to be physically active. Farmers markets and grocery stores in close proximity make it easier to buy and prepare fresh, affordable and healthy foods. Bike paths, connected transportation and traffic calming measures make it possible to bike to work and walk to school. 

A healthier community can make for more productive employees (now and down the road), lower health care costs and ultimately a healthier bottom line.

It can also spur new business. In Memphis, new bike lines revitalized the downtown business district. Increased foot (and wheel) traffic to the flagging area eventually led to 37 new businesses, decreased vacancy rates and rising property values, all while incentivizing physical activity in what had been called the “unhealthiest city in the nation.” IBM chose to open a new service delivery center in Dubuque, Iowa in part because of Dubuque’s commitment to community wellness. This created 1,300 new jobs in the community - and 1,300 paying customers for Dubuque’s existing businesses.

Businesses wanting to be part of the solution in their community can take concrete steps today to get started, from partnering with local health coalitions or health departments to supporting smart policies that promote health.  Learn more from the National Business Coalition on Health.

It’s time to recognize the value of building health outside the workplace. It may be one of the smartest investments a business can make.

Mary A. Pittman, DrPH, is CEO of the Public Health Institute. She currently sits on the Institute of Medicine’s Roundtable on Population Health Improvement, and formerly headed the Health Research and Educational Trust, an affiliate of the American Hospital Association

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