Corporate health risk

It shouldn’t need a pandemic to put health on the corporate risk agenda, but if there are any opportunities out of Covid-19 it is that health is being discussed as a priority beyond the individual, and that solutions are being implemented are at the population level.

To take this thinking beyond the pandemic, here are three opportunities for your organisation to take another look at how it views employee health:

  • the role of the corporate risk register;
  • the definition of health; and
  • the scope or boundary of health.

Let’s start with the role of corporate risk, which differs in two ways from its close relative, operational risk. First, it aligns with the organisation’s strategic objectives, and second, it is often distilled down to the top 5 or 10 items. Which means health and safety generally gets grouped into one line!

It can be disheartening having the complexity of health and safety summarised in less space than a postage stamp, but there is an important opportunity to grasp: that the wording on the corporate risk register is essential for defining the organisation’s health focus.

If you can influence the wording in the corporate risk register to reflect health’s high impact risk to the organisation’s strategic objectives, then you have sown the first seed of change by influencing the context of discussion at the executive and board level.

 

What is the definition of health?

Now that health is on the corporate risk register the next logical question is: what do we mean when we say ‘health’? The language of health means it is often discussed and measured by its absence. When we talk about health, it’s generally in relation to the ill health – physical, mental, psychosocial – of individuals.

Acute ill health issues tend to dominate attention, and chronic issues might get a mention if there’s a direct causal relationship to the work. This focus is often reflected in the organisation’s metrics. This may be a symptom of our cognitive bias to focus on the negative, or an example of what is measured is managed. Either way, it presents the second opportunity for re-thinking: to redefine what we mean by health.

The World Health Organisation is a good place to start. It defines health as ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’ (WHO, 1946). The term ‘Optimal Health’ may be worth adding into the organisational lexicon to reflect the priority given to physical, mental and social wellbeing. (Optimal health is already built in to our people planning assumptions, which assume that staff are able to perform at peak physical and cognitive capacity for the hours that they are paid.)

Granted, optimal health may be aspirational, but why not base our goals, attention, activities and measurements on what matters?

 

Extending the scope of health

Traditionally, the focus of an organisation’s health risks, activities, and measures are at the individual level. The scope of health is often defined by legislative requirements, community and cultural expectations, and whether the company is operating across multiple jurisdictions.

However, there’s nothing like a global pandemic to remind us that we are not an island, and that all individuals are part of wider communities and populations that directly influence the organisation. Describing, understanding, and monitoring health with a broader ‘population’ perspective may be more reflective of the organisation’s real risk profile.

Best practice organisations recognise the opportunity that exists by extending the boundary of health to include community and public health. You can nudge your organisation further in this direction by asking some simple questions, such as:

  • What are the main population groups within our organisation?
  • Are there external groups (social, community, demographic) that influence our organisation’s populations and which we should understand better?

 

Risk register revisited

Having considered these three opportunities, how to wrap them up and succinctly express them in your corporate risk register? First, you’ll need a premise. As an example, here is one which is hard to argue with: “That optimal health (of people) is required to achieve our strategic objectives.”

Given this premise, here is the related entry in the corporate risk register: “Sub-optimal health (of people) is a risk to meeting the organisation’s strategic objectives.”

This provides a challenge and an opportunity for the executive and board to grapple with health beyond the level of the individual. Because as Covid has taught us, there can be no individual health without community health.

Brisbane-based Olivia Ryan is a director of the consultancy Small Giants Advisory.