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Building Thriving Communities: Opportunities for Businesses to Make a Difference

In the United States, the health disadvantage and disparities in health status and access to healthcare persist across different communities. This article explores the vital conditions that shape health, the impact of healthcare sector systems, and the responsibility of business leaders in managing employee stress amid a failing healthcare system.

On average, the health of Americans is worse than that of people in other wealthy countries, despite the United States spending more on healthcare than any other nation. Moreover, there are clear differences in health status and access to healthcare across geographic settings and racial and ethnic groups within the United States. The roots of the U.S. health disadvantage can be traced back to communities where the vital conditions that shape health are unmet.

The seven vital conditions that shape health, wealth, and well-being include:

  1. Basic needs for health and safety: Clean air and water, nutritious food, and a safe environment.

  2. Meaningful work and wealth: Employment, job training, and financial savings and security.

  3. Humane housing: Safe structures, affordable costs, diverse neighborhoods, and proximity to work, school, and recreation.

  4. Reliable transportation: Efficiencies in time and energy use and opportunities for active transportation.

  5. A thriving natural world: A healthy environment, green spaces, and protections from threats such as heat and wind.

  6. Life-long learning: Literacy and numeracy skills, quality early childhood education, elementary and high school education, and access to career and adult education.

  7. Belonging and civic muscle: A sense of inclusion and the power to influence the policies and practices that shape the world.

While there are healthcare sector systems that significantly contribute to the rise in costs, business leaders also have a substantial impact on the level of stress experienced by their employees. It is the responsibility of businesses to manage this stress in the face of a failing healthcare system.

In 2018, healthcare expenditures in the United States were 2.6 times higher per person compared to the average of OECD member nations. However, this high level of spending on healthcare is ineffective, inefficient, and costly. Healthcare itself accounts for only 10-20% of health outcomes, indicating that the conditions in which employees live and return to after work play a more significant role in their health.

Furthermore, six out of 10 Americans have at least one chronic condition, and 4 out of 10 have two or more chronic conditions. Rates of mental health issues and depression are increasing, particularly among adolescents and young adults. Additionally, labor force participation among U.S. men has declined, while women's participation has also decreased from its peak in 2000.

The Consequences of Ignoring the Issue: U.S. life expectancy continues to rank last among industrialized nations, with recent declines attributed to increased deaths among working-age adults. American workers are less healthy and more likely to die earlier compared to their counterparts in other wealthy countries. If these trends are ignored, they will persist and worsen, leading to new problems and challenges in the future.

The story of business in the United States goes beyond wealth—it embodies and perpetuates values that form the core of the American identity. However, income inequality has increased, and the impact of businesses on workers, mid-level managers, consumers, the public, and communities has diminished. Many businesses are reevaluating their role in society and recognizing the opportunities in becoming partners in creating healthy, inclusive, and prosperous communities.

Steps to Take:

  1. Internal Practices: Businesses can prioritize employee well-being by implementing supportive workplace policies, creating a healthy work environment, and providing employee benefits that promote physical and mental well-being. This includes offering flexible work arrangements, mental health resources, wellness programs, and opportunities for professional development.

  2. Join Aligned Business Organizations: Collaborating with business organizations that share the goal of creating thriving communities can amplify the impact and drive positive change. By participating in industry associations or local chambers of commerce, businesses can advocate for policies that address the vital conditions of health and well-being.

  3. Support Non-Profit Partners: Businesses can contribute to community well-being by supporting non-profit organizations that directly address the vital conditions that shape health. This can involve financial contributions, volunteering, or partnering with non-profit organizations to implement community programs and initiatives.

As the United States grapples with the health disadvantage and societal challenges, businesses have a significant role to play in shaping health and well-being. By focusing on internal practices, collaborating with aligned organizations, and supporting non-profit partners, businesses can contribute to creating healthier, more inclusive, and prosperous communities. It is time for business leaders to step up and prioritize the well-being of their employees and the communities they serve, recognizing that the true measure of business success lies not only in financial prosperity but also in the positive impact they have on society.

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