Does Health Need a Color?

We know what it means when people talk about the "greening" of corporations, use the phrase "green is good," point to companies turning "green to gold," or speak of the hazards of "greenwashing." It's all about integrating environmental issues, concerns and metrics into business practices. It's about changing business as usual in ways that quantify the true costs of water, energy used and wasted, greenhouse gases generated and saved, recycling or reusing solid waste. It's about a growing movement to make these changes the norm for companies and societies. And it's about embracing and capitalizing on the business case for environmentally responsible practices. Progress is measured and reported though the Dow Jones Sustainability Indices, the Global Reporting Initiative, and the FTSE4Good Index Series.

"Green" is shorthand for a diverse range of actions by companies, NGOs, investors, and individuals that share one common feature: addressing core environmental concerns that constitute real and increasing threats to people's lives and corporate profits.

"Green" slogans and articles draw people together to act in new ways without having to restate at length the evidence on which environmental factors matter most, as well as which are most amenable to change and by whom.

So, does health need a color of its own?

Health has always been central to an individual's quest through life and the basis for a multitude of policies and actions by governments, NGOs, and commercial enterprises. Evidence is mounting that workforce health is integral to corporate health.

Ray Fabius and colleagues found that a portfolio of companies that "nurture a Culture of Health" outperformed the S&P 500, and concluded that "Companies that build a culture of health by focusing on the well-being and safety of their workforce yield greater value for their investors."

In a recent Opinion piece in The New York Times ("Why You Hate Work," May 30, 2014), Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath reported on a study by the Energy Project and the Harvard Business Review as well as others by Gallup and Towers Watson, all of which tied "sustainable engagement" by employees to corporate performance. Among the core needs of workers, they found, is renewal, which those surveyed reported as resulting in a greater capacity to think creatively as well as a higher level of health and well-being. "A truly human-centered organization puts its people first -- even above customers -- because it recognizes that they are the key to creating long-term value," Schwartz and Porath wrote, citing as an example the growing practice of addressing workers' physical needs with worksite well-being programs.

Despite this growing awareness of the connection between a healthy workforce and a healthy bottom line, progress is hampered by the lack of a strong voice and unified message -- a colorful banner, if you will -- to rally the many stakeholders in health. That may explain why health writ large and broadly, as defined by the World Health Organization -- "A state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity" -- does not feature in the other reporting mechanisms and thus remains invisible to decision-makers in the worlds of business, investment, and government.

If health has a color today, it probably would be red. That signifies blood, surgical and related treatments usually of a heroic nature and at a time when disease prevention and the promotion of healthy lifestyles have already failed. It is the color of hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, and NGOs committed to saving lives by treating disease, not by preventing it. The dominance of treatment reflects the way we undervalue prevention and health promotion and under-invest in the efforts of government, industry, and broader civil society to promote healthy food, tobacco control, better mental health services, active living, new partnerships and business models -- a broad spectrum of positive actions to achieve a healthier society.

In an effort to address the gap between urgency and action, the Vitality Institute Commission on Health Promotion and the Prevention of Chronic Disease in Working-Age Americans spent a year examining the evidence and deliberating on solutions that would place the power of evidence-based prevention at the center of health policies and actions in the US. The Commissioners, a nonpartisan group of distinguished thought leaders from the private, public, and social sectors, developed five catalytic recommendations to improve the health of the working-age population nationwide. The Commission's report, "Investing in Prevention: A National Imperative," will be released on June 18. A webinar open to the public, will follow on June 24, during which the five actionable recommendations will be discussed.

Health needs its own color, one that reflects the same potential that "green" does to be transformative, preventive, promotional, and innovative to make the attainment of health the natural and easy norm.

Join the conversation and tell us what color you think health should be by finding the Vitality Institute on Twitter under @VitalityInst.