Digital & Social Media

Fighting the Power of Disease Through Leadership

Fighting the Power of Disease Through Leadership

Most U.S. corporations might not be in the healthcare business, but they pour roughly $600 billion annually into employee health insurance. So, how invested in the health of employees should a company be? Should corporations be more vocal about getting themselves out of paying for health insurance and getting their employees into health exchanges under the Affordable Care Act?

“This issue is politically explosive,” said Timothy Quigley, a professor at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business, who specializes in the influence of CEOs and top managers on organizational outcomes. “If a CEO came out and really pushed to get firms out of the healthcare business, they might risk alienating their own employees and/or customers.”

Quigley points to John Mackey, co-CEO of Whole Foods Market, who faced public backlash when he came out strongly against the ACA in 2013. “(Mackey) didn’t help himself by using charged language like ‘Fascism,’ but the point remains,” Quigley said. “There really is little to gain, but great risk for a CEO speaking out on this topic – other than to generally support access to good healthcare.”

Besides, there are easier – and more anonymous – ways to get your voice heard when you’re an executive officer. “If CEOs had a strong opinion on this, most would pursue that agenda through their collective organizations like the Business Roundtable, Chamber of Commerce and Conference Board,” Quigley said. “I might add: Firms spend a fair bit on lobbyists who could also lean on the various legislative branches, without much record of it and little chance of tying any pressure to a (specific) firm or CEO.”

For some healthcare issues, though, a leadership team can make a positive difference, without risking damaging blowback. For example, Dr. James Meegan of the National Institutes of Health said new research shows that vaccines are important for protecting the health of adults, as well as children. He recommends that corporate leaders help their employees get authoritative information on vaccines.

Meegan“Recently, we have seen an increase in adult-onset whopping cough, or pertussis, which is well controlled in children by immunizations,” said Meegan, director of the Office of Global Research at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Washington, D.C.As we grow older, this vaccine-induced protection wanes. So it’s now recommended that adults get booster immunization for some childhood vaccines, such as pertussis and measles.”

There also are a number of new vaccines specifically for adults, including protection against shingles, pneumonia and human papilloma virus. “Additionally, annual vaccines against influenza are recommended because the strains of influenza change frequently,” Meegan said.

Many adults don’t even know about these vaccines or their efficacy, which is where internal communications can be effective, whether the question is vaccines, infectious illnesses such as MERS or H1N1, or even general ways to stay healthy and promote wellness in the workforce.

The most important directive is to provide employees with current and accurate information in a timely manner. If there’s a Chief Medical Officer, leverage that credibility as much as possible. Companies without a CMO can check with their healthcare benefits provider for ways that support and credibility can be provided.

Meegan said there are numerous government websites, including the NIH and the Centers for Disease Control, that provide extensive, authoritative information. Some companies are posting links to authoritative sites on a special section of the employee intranet. Others create a healthcare logo for internal communications on the topic. Table tents for the cafeteria and posted signs, particularly in restrooms and break rooms, are another way to quickly and easily spread information.

Experts also suggest including messages from corporate leadership. Managers need to see the top-down support, so they are comfortable encouraging their employees to stay well or stay home when sick.

Public health officials believe “if the CEO and other corporate leaders are getting flu shots and talking about the importance of immunizations, it’s going to have an impact on their employees.” Heading into autumn, health authorities recommend that companies consider providing easy access to annual flu shots and urging employees to review the completeness of their childhood immunizations, as well as their current immunity levels.

Quigley believes that corporate leaders can have a big impact on their employees, and society in general. “I think CEOs – and their firms- can and should be a force for good change socially,” he said. “I think we saw that with same-sex-marriage (where), Chick-Fil-A aside, many of the largest corporations led the charge.” Quigley said companies and their CEOs applied strong economic pressure more recently with the Confederate flag issue in South Carolina and, last year, with the “religious freedom” bill that passed in Indiana.  “The point is, CEOs get involved in lots of stuff,” Quigley said.

There is, after all, a bottom line component to preventing illnesses, Meegan said: “Overall, business needs to factor in the potential number of work days lost to preventable illnesses such as influenza.”


About the author

Maggie Sieger is an award-winning journalist and former Time Magazine correspondent, published also by Reuters, the Chicago Tribune, Entertainment Weekly, Realtor Magazine and Readers Digest, among others. She is the author of Deep in the Heart, the First 50 Years of Duchesne Academy. Sieger currently works as a freelance writer and media consultant in Saint Louis, Mo.