Proof positive

March 1, 2001

Editorial comment.

 

What We Think

Proof positive

By Richard Service, Editor

Does anybody out there truly believe that being in pain or short of breath or unable to concentrate has no significant impact on job performance? It doesn't take a great leap of faith to accept the link between wellness and the ability to work, yet the demand for "hard evidence" of this intuitive connection is common in the business community.

When it comes to spending money on new drugs to treat chronic medical conditions, workstations designed to avoid repetitive motion injuries or programs to promote health and well-being among employees, the common response is "Prove it!" The standard of proof applied to health expenditures seems that much stranger when you consider the dollars spent to launch new products on the basis of focus groups—the "softest" sort of research—and gut instinct.

Business & Health has long supported the efforts of the Health Enhancement Research Organization. Some 350 leaders in the field attended HERO's first annual conference, recently held in Washington, D.C., a forum for the presentation, discussion and debate of the cutting edge of health and productivity research. Among the many noteworthy presentations were:

• Sidney Stahl, PhD, of the National Institute on Aging, on how the evidence of ability among older workers contradicts myths that are based on managerial impressions;

• Wendy Lynch, PhD, of William M. Mercer, on how the work environment contributes to the health issues that employers spend money to treat;

• Ron Kessler, PhD, of Harvard Medical School, on the real societal cost of untreated illness;

• Dee Eddington, PhD, of the University of Michigan, on the ongoing development of the Worker's Productivity Index in conjunction with a group of major employers;

• Bill Bunn, MD, MPH, of International Truck and Engine Corporation, on the real world of corporate health and productivity research.

One of my favorite insights came from Robert McCunney, MD, MPH, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and past president of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. The long-standing view that good health is an outcome of a prosperous economy has things the wrong way round. Healthy people are able to work productively and become prosperous.

We can see evidence of this in the simultaneous collapse of the health care delivery system and the economies of former members of the Soviet Union. For more encouraging evidence, consider the experience of the companies in our cover story, all recognized as models of well workplaces by the Wellness Councils of America. Yes, they are seeking quantifiable measures, but they are not paralyzed in the meantime. Note, too, how many have realized that wellness involves a great deal more than the delivery of medical care. It includes the work environment, the corporate culture and the worker's sense of satisfaction and self-worth.

What will it take to bring the majority of employers around to this enlightened viewpoint? Don't expect widespread change until the investment community rewards or punishes companies at least partly on the basis of how well they manage the health and well-being of the people so many allege to be their greatest asset. When that happens, forward-thinking companies that are working with good evidence rather than waiting for the perfect proof will be some distance ahead of their competitors.

 



Richard Service. Proof positive.

Business and Health

2001;3:6.