Attitudes about health care are shifting in the American workplace. As they do, business leaders are starting to realize that their responsibilities extend beyond the walls of their workplace and out to the broader community. While employee health benefits have historically focused on treating sick people, there is fresh attention being paid to how employers can keep people from getting sick in the first place.

That’s no small challenge, especially when you consider the fact that the United States spends more on health care than any other country, but dedicates 75 percent of that spending to treating preventable conditions, and only four percent to disease prevention. In other words, we spend most of our time putting out fires when we could just stop playing with matches.

Some statistics

A 2014 Healthy Workplaces, Healthy Communities report found that personal and family health problems cost U.S. employers an estimated $1,685 per employee, per year. Another study found that 90 percent of individuals have a more positive opinion of companies that work for the social good. But employers still have to be smart about the efforts they support.

What difference does community make? While access to health care contributes 16 percent to overall health outcomes, other factors — all of which are tied to the community — make up the remaining 84 percent of health determinants. Savvy employers understand this dynamic and recognize that creating a culture of health in the workplace and the community can have a two-pronged benefit: creating a healthier population and future workforce, and improving productivity and financial performance. But many employers and community leaders struggle to put the pieces together.

Getting employers involved

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has called creating a culture of health “one of the most pervasive challenges of our time,” and claims that addressing this challenge will require a group effort. Likewise, a recent wellness industry research report identified the top 20 priorities for employers when it comes to community-health — things like ensuring access to healthy food, addressing emotional health issues, reducing obesity and improving graduation rates — are six key factors that are necessary for an employer to invest in community health.

“...we spend most of our time putting out fires when we could just stop playing with matches.”

From interviews and a survey of employers across the country six things necessary to ignite the employer-community collaboration to improve population were found. The first being a credible convener. Employers are more likely to participate in community health initiatives if the effort is led by someone who is a credible champion for the goal and a leader in the community. They want someone who has the tools and resources to get things done and who is involved for altruistic reasons. Employers also are looking for a broad representation from the community and expect to see involvement from representatives across that community. Businesses are more likely to get involved if they see other business leaders working alongside a diverse cross-section of the community.  A community-health effort should have a relatable mission if they want to attract business leaders, including broad well-articulated goals that demonstrate a clear benefit to the community.

The data also revealed that another key factor to ignite business-community collaboration is individual commitment to health and wellness. Meaningful collaboration requires participation from individuals who are personally motivated and committed to the success of the effort. This ensures that the people involved are passionate enough to follow through on their commitments. Along with that comes organizational commitment to health and wellness. Employers who are committed to building a culture of health within their own workplace are more likely to partner with other organizations and the community to create a culture of health for the broader population. Finally, one of the most important things is demonstrated commitment from collaboration leadership. Employers expect authenticity and genuine excitement from leaders of a community health effort. They want to know people are involved for the right reasons and are committed to the project’s success.

Although support for improving community health is becoming a predominant theme for employers of all sizes, any effort to address public health challenges must be thoughtfully designed to ensure lasting success. Understanding what drives the decision to get involved is just the first step to improving health and paving the way for improved business outcomes.