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influence hiring and promotion decisions.

When companies buy computers for their employees, they also provide training to make sure the investment pays off. So why do those same companies invest millions of dollars in health care without making any particular effort to ensure that their employees stay healthy?

As major purchasers of health care, corporations have almost as much of a stake in preserving or improving employees’ health as the employees themselves do. My company invests hundreds of millions of dollars in health care; a company like General Motors–which in June placed much of the blame for its massive layoffs on health care costs–invests considerably more. We need to protect these investments and capitalize on them as we would on any other.

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Companies can do that by recognizing that they achieve larger gains when they address the causes, rather than the treatments, of ill health. Focusing on health care is inherently reactive; focusing on health is proactive and, potentially, a game changer. The chief reason companies fail to invest in health, I think, is that it is often difficult to quantify the return. Executives know how to measure savings from disease-management techniques that reduce the cost of care for an employee with a chronic condition. It is much trickier to accurately determine how much they could save by keeping that employee from getting sick in the first place. For that reason, significant investments in prevention require some faith.

Given that employees spend about a quarter of their time at the office, companies can do quite a bit to help them stay healthy and to cut their own costs in the process. For example, companies can:

Provide plenty of nutritious options in cafeterias and vending machines. And because healthy foods often cost more, employers can subsidize the purchase of them.

Make workplaces smoke free and help employees kick the habit outside of work.

Encourage exercise by offering employees flee use of a fitness center or subsidizing employees’ memberships to local gyms. When possible, leaders should set the example themselves, even if that just means taking a brisk ten-minute walk at lunch.

Offer on-site health education and screening for conditions like high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Share with employees who do take care of themselves some of the savings they generate.

Design health care programs with a component that reaches out to employees’ immediate families. At Abbott, we cover an average of 1.6 dependents for every employee. Keeping those families healthy produces even greater savings for the company.

Very few companies do all of these things (that includes ours–we do four out of six). And admittedly there are barriers to thoroughly embedding health consciousness in the corporate culture. Such actions can raise charges of paternalism, manipulation, or senior executives inserting their noses where they don’t belong. Creating incentives for healthy behavior may elicit cries of unfairness, particularly from superior performers with poor health habits.

Companies must also be vigilant that their preferences for healthy living don’t influence hiring and promotion decisions.

Despite those concerns, investing in employee health is as unassailable a proposal as you are likely to find in business. Employees live healthier lives; companies do the right thing and decrease their health care costs. In the process, organizations also reduce costsresulting from lost productivity and absenteeism and become more attractive to manyemployees and job seekers. Nothing could be more straightforward.

Yes, health care does impose a heavy burden on employers. But while government, industries, and interest groups concentrate on the long-haul task of reforming this monster, individual employers should meaningfully influence their own small piece of it.

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