How to make your business public health ready in a coronavirus world

The new coronavirus is a public health wake-up call for all business leaders. Companies must…

The new coronavirus is a public health wake-up call for all business leaders. Companies must make public health an integral strategic component across every facet of their organizations.

The ongoing pandemic has laid bare to the business community that a healthy enterprise depends on having healthy workers and healthy customers. It’s true whether you’re a restaurant, a major retailer, a corner store or a Fortune 500 company.

Currently, the attention to combat Covid-19 in the workplace has centered on how to adapt, including the tangible steps leaders must take to protect their workspaces, such as staggering shifts, spacing out desks, mandating masks, and stocking up on hand sanitizer. All these precautions are appropriate and necessary. But the truth is, they are insufficient.

If businesses want to succeed in a world with Covid-19, or in the face of another pandemic, and meet their responsibilities to both employees and consumers — they must make public health an integral component of their strategy, which means considering the wide-ranging public health implications in every decision.

Going forward, successful companies will be increasingly reliant on individuals who have public health credentials or are trained on issues of global public health. These leaders — whether they embody new roles, like a chief public health officer, or expand the existing roles of chief medical officers or chief operating officers — will ultimately need a seat at the table to help organizations navigate these types of situations. It is imperative that public health must be part of the collective consciousness of the full corporate c-suite and not siloed to any one department. Instead, leaders with public health credentials can bring the public health mindset into business practices and teams across the organization.

For instance, credentialed public health experts could serve to examine a company’s entire supply chain, looking to improve safety in the factories, enhance employee wellbeing by reexamining their paid sick day policy, and protect its customers by upgrading the hygiene of its retail stores. Each of these steps, in and of themselves, would make a difference for the health of a business. But together, they form a whole greater than the sum of their parts: A company that is contributing to better public health writ large.

Moreover, because of the global economic impact of Covid-19, we can no longer ignore the fact that public health has a direct impact on corporate bottom lines. Company public health experts could help organizations mitigate the economic damage inflicted by public health threats by preparing contingency plans — putting the company in a proactive, rather than reactive, posture. It will ensure they lead their business with public health in mind.

Adopting this approach starts from the top. CEOs need to put public health first on the agenda considering its impact on their workforces and implications to their financial, operational and commercial interests. The business leaders who use data and science, as well as a multidisciplinary team of experts, to guide their strategy will be the ones best positioned to reimagine the future of their companies and seize the opportunities for positive, enduring change.

Just a few decades ago, technology was an afterthought, relegated to the IT department in many companies. But tech quickly became core to every function of most businesses—from how they pay their bills to who they decide to hire. And as a result, many companies began adding a chief technology officer to their c-Suite. Likewise, as diversity, equity, and inclusion has become a focus of major corporations, executives have finally been appointed to ensure every aspect of a company lives up to its stated values.

The same must be true of health, because if it is compromised in any department of your company, it puts every department at risk. And that, in turn, puts entire communities and economies in jeopardy. As with technology and diversity, if you don’t invest in public health, you lose a competitive edge. Now is the time to take the key learnings from Covid-19 and incorporate them into the reimagined future of business.

Coming out of Covid-19, business leaders must rise to the occasion with public health best practices to drive safe and informed action, ensure business continuity for their essential operations, and protect their employees and customers.

— Michelle A. Williams is dean of the faculty at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Kelly Grier is U.S. chair and managing partner and Americas managing partner of EY.

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