We Are Better Together: Why Workplace Health IS Community Health

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Several years ago, one of Prevention Partners’ board members grabbed my attention when he told a story describing why he and a few other visionary leaders in his county cared about the health of their community members, outside of just the four walls of their respective businesses. He explained that it cost 5 cents more per can to manufacture soup at a local Campbell’s Soup factory in comparison to other Campbell’s locations because of the poor health and related health care expenses of the employees in that facility. New businesses didn’t want to relocate to his county because of the high rates of obesity and chronic disease, linking poor health to the economic development (or lack thereof) of the county.

It wasn’t enough to focus on the health and health care costs of his own employees alone, because with the general churn of employment in the county, his employees today might not be his employees tomorrow, and he already saw the overweight and obesity rates of middle and high schools students painting a picture of his future employees’ health care costs. However, with enough business leaders in one community committed to improving the health of their employees and focused on a common set of goals and measures, he believed that workplace health would collectively lead to community health.

Since the first time I heard the Campbell’s Soup story, I’ve worked alongside groups of business leaders in several communities who have come to the same conclusion.

  • In Salisbury, North Carolina, a community collaboration led by Novant Health Rowan Medical Center, the local Chamber of Commerce, the YMCA, and NovoNordisk led 12 organizations (representing nearly 8,000 employees), including the community college, county and municipal government, accounting, banking, and manufacturing companies, to support the health of their employees by collectively improving policies, benefits, and environments that help make the healthy choice the easy choice at work. The president of the hospital was also the chair of the board for the local Chamber of Commerce, making the hospital a natural and trusted leader in the business community. At the end of the three-year initiative, Partners in Learning (PIL), a child care facility, found that 6 out of 11 employees who used to have high blood sugar were no longer at risk. PIL also cut employee obesity and hypertension rates in half, and helped 4 out of 5 smokers quit over a two-year period.


Deborah Howell, assistant director of PIL added, “Our staff efforts trickle down to our children, resulting in healthier eating, more physical activity and overall better health for the children in our facility.”

  • In Greenville, North Carolina, a similar collaboration between Vidant Health System, FirstCarolinaCare Insurance Company, and MedCost Benefit Services led 12 multi-sector businesses to improve healthy workplace practices impacting over 16,000 employees. After four years of work, the city of Greenville decreased their medical costs by 14 percent, lowered ER utilization by nine percent, and successfully engaged 45 percent of employees who needed assistance (as identified by their health insurer). Vidant Health has recently expanded its support and leadership to three local school districts to improve policies and environments to increase physical activity and healthy eating for students.
  • The Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust is also helping to kick start and spread initiatives like this across rural North Carolina communities. Currently in Halifax and Rockingham counties, business leaders are partnering with public health to actively recruit 50 organizations in each county to commit to working together over the next two years to establish healthy workplaces across the community.

In order to coordinate, increase the momentum, and spread the great work happening in pockets of North Carolina into new communities across the state, a statewide partnership called Healthy Together NC was launched in 2014. Led by Prevention Partners, the North Carolina Department of Commerce, North Carolina Hospital Association, North Carolina State Health Plan, and Population Health Improvement Partners, Healthy Together NC’s goal is to reach at least 10 of the largest workplaces in each of North Carolina’s 100 counties by 2025 (view our progress here). This reach will change the culture among 1,000+ employers, which means reaching at least 20 percent of the workforce, especially in North Carolina’s rural communities.

So this is a call to action for business leaders, and not just in North Carolina. Improving the health of your employees helps to meet your bottom line. But working together with other local business leaders to improve the health of all of your employees and their families creates a culture of health across your entire community. If you’re not sure how to get started, check out the “Healthy Workplaces, Healthy Communities” case studies of how other businesses, foundations, and coalitions are addressing population health, both in and beyond the workplace setting, to reach employee families and community members.

Whitney Davis is the Director of Research and Evaluation for Prevention Partners, a national nonprofit focused on addressing tobacco use, poor nutrition, physical inactivity, and obesity. Our mission is to engage leaders, transform organizations, and build healthier communities.  To learn more about Prevention Partners, visit www.forprevention.org.


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