As the United States begins to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic’s consequences, and the recent convulsions in our country, we are all wondering what a post-COVID future will look like. The pandemic-driven disruptions to the economy, society and the polity will be profound, long-lasting and, in some cases, permanent. Americans will look to the private sector, not just to government, to drive the recovery and blunt the pandemic’s consequences. Adopting a long-term “culture of health” strategy is one way for companies to help employees, consumers, and their communities to recover and even thrive in the years ahead. 

Businesses, many of which have suffered financial losses during the pandemic, may seem like unlikely leaders given their longstanding reputation for focusing exclusively on maximizing profits. Such behavior, which has contributed to a host of health challenges — such as preventable noncommunicable diseases, social inequities, and global warming — has fueled widespread public distrust. Over the years, declining global CEO trust levels have sparked concern within many industries. Yet the breadth and depth of the pandemic’s damage to our social fabric provide companies with a tremendous opportunity to re-imagine what they can do to shape the health and well-being of not only their employees, but everyone they touch through their operations in order to accelerate the nation’s recovery and strengthen our resilience to confront future scourges. 

Just before COVID began, we conducted extensive interviews with C-Suite leaders broadly recognized as innovators in reimagining healthier ways of doing business for their companies, employees and community. Specifically, we interviewed 22 of them — from diverse backgrounds, industries and sizes — to see how they promoted a culture of health, i.e., a place where health and well-being strategies were “the way we do things around here.” The insights we unearthed should have relevance now as the nation tries to recover from COVID. 

Lesson 1: Fully recognize the full dimensions of employee well-being. In contrast to the traditional focus on occupational health or promoting wellness programs, progressive corporate leaders in our interviews embraced all dimensions of well-being — physical, mental, and social. For example, some C-suite leaders recognized that stress resulting from financial debt or other aspects of employees’ personal lives may affect productivity, leading them to offer services that address these problems. One executive drew attention to efforts to create better work-life balance, including making adjustments to work that allowed more time to spend and appreciate family. These efforts convey respect for the employee as a whole person, while recognizing employees have lives outside the workplace. As one leader noted, “It’s really moving beyond the acute, the immediate, the what we’re specifically doing, and taking a broader view of what well-being can be.” The COVID-19 era will undoubtedly amplify calls for adopting this broader view, especially since the pandemic has disproportionately impacted essential workers, low-income people, and communities of color.  

Lesson 2: Encourage and support employees to discover a sense of purpose in their work and lives. Some leaders committed to going broader still. One executive of a manufacturing company observed, “I think that the most important component that is often underemphasized in discussions about health and wellbeing is the importance of having meaning and purpose to your life.” Researchers on happiness studies often refer to this as “eudaimonic well-being” stemming from leading a virtuous life.

In a time when COVID has ravaged so many neighborhoods, corporate programs that promote community volunteerism as integral, not separate, from work represent one way to help employees find meaning. At least one-fourth of C-suite leaders we interviewed mentioned supporting volunteering efforts of their employees on company time, such as matching the skills or expertise of their employees with tutoring, financial services, and other community needs. This idea of “sophisticated volunteerism” not only aids the needs of community residents but may help engender employees’ sense of purpose in life where COVID-19 has prompted many to question their sense of agency and usefulness.  

Lesson 3: Address fundamental issues impacting health and well-being in your local community. Most of these C-Suite leaders recognized a “porosity” between their company and their surrounding community i.e., that investing in community health  builds company reputations, improves loyalty, helps employee families, and improves business revenue. But the most impactful approach, which is even more necessary in the post-COVID-19 era, focuses on addressing social determinants of health — social factors that drive  health risks and outcomes — such as food security or access to healthy foods, poverty alleviation, skills or education. Examples we heard included helping the local community establish a neighborhood supermarket, educational or sports programs, or training in writing resumes and other knowledge and professional skills that improve the chances of securing or keeping a job. As one leader of a services industry observed, it is “…. to focus on comprehensive economic development where the company has a footprint.  Not just having a hospital or a police station or a theater, but what does the whole community look like? How are we going to shape it so it doesn’t have just an unbalanced economic development strategy?” 

The time has come to build a broader movement that goes beyond employees’ physical health to encompass the physcial, pyschological and social wellbeing of all stakeholders. If more companies focus broadly on well-being and purpose within their walls and for their communities at large, they can begin to win back public trust and offer hope for society to thrive in the future.

Viswanath, Ramanadhan, Roumani, Yatsko and Koh are with the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, MA. The data for this article come from our research project, “Building A Culture of Health: A Business Leadership Imperative,” funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation.