Last month, I talked about the connection between employee health and the community. It's easy to see how investing effort into community involvement benefits a company.
Organizations that put their values into visible, tangible action tend to have more engaged employees, greater brand recognition, and higher employee retention. In addition, the healthier a community, the better crop of local talent and stronger employer alliances with other community entities are. The problem with moving forward has been a matter of exactly how to take action.
It's important to recognize that we are already contributing to the community's health in many ways as employers. Employment builds prosperity and is the primary source of income for a community's residents. Higher income is associated with better health and lower rates of chronic disease, and ultimately, lower mortality rates. We know that healthier people tend to be more productive and better at their jobs than those who are sick.
To better guide their healthcare journey, employers offer benefits packages and education on how to use them. In fact, being employed reduces the risk of depression and stress, which contributes to overall life satisfaction.
The income tax dollars generated by our businesses and employees go directly to our communities and the state in which we're incorporated. For that matter, our workforce spends the bulk of its discretionary income within the community where they live.
Corporate leaders in cities across America bring their business perspective and expertise into board meetings of health systems, nonprofits, and other community-based organizations to align employer interest with community investment. To suggest that employers need to start investing in their communities is overlooking what our organizations are already doing.
We are looking for new opportunities for collaboration and simple initiatives to improve employee and community health. One potential improvement we can make on our own is not necessarily new or revolutionary. Employers have an opportunity to capitalize on the return to nature momentum and inspire both our employees and community at the same time.
Over the last 15 months, we've seen an explosion of interest in outdoor activities, from running, cycling, and kayaking to hiking, camping, and exploring. A simple way we can positively impact the community is to encourage our employees to get into nature. For example, starting a community garden is a great way to partner with schools, municipalities, and health systems. Organizations with a campus can convert some of the green space into trails. Encouraging and/or incentivizing employees to participate in some manner of nature conservatory is an initiative that will deliver a positive return on investment for an employer.
Over the last several years, doctors have been prescribing food and walking as medicine. The evidence seems clear that being in nature has a therapeutic effect. This is emphasized especially in urban areas with little green space and a greater number of health disparities. The Japanese, for instance, hold time in nature with such high reverence that they've coined a phrase for spending time in the woods — they call it 'forest bathing.' It's essentially as simple as immersing yourself in nature. It can range from walking in a park to longer hiking excursions off the beaten path. The point is consciously connecting with the environment.
What the Japanese found and what science has confirmed is that time spent in nature is good. It's strongly linked to lower blood pressure, heart rate and stress hormones, decreased anxiety, depression, and fatigue. Even anticancer natural killer cells and anticancer proteins increase in number after a couple of hours in nature. Hiking is especially beneficial because it elevates the heart rate and forces complex movements, making your brain more resistant to cognitive decline by creating new neural pathways while creating a stronger heart and muscles.
Additionally, being outside engages your brain in a way that being indoors can never match and can be accomplished in as little as two hours per week. That's enough to keep serotonin levels up, which raises energy, calms the mood, and helps folks stay more positive and focused.
As employers, we can build new gardens and green spaces. We can conserve and act as custodians of existing areas. It's just one of many simple and effective ways to give back to the community. It allows us to live our values by encouraging and fostering the health of our employees and the community at large.
The next time you wonder how your organization can impact the community, remember that you're already doing significant, good work. I would encourage you to look for something simple to do that can benefit many while improving the health of all. A path for employers can be as simple as reconnecting with nature. It's affordable. It's sustainable and benefits the entire community.
About Health Action Council
Health Action Council is a not-for-profit 501(c)(6) organization representing mid-and large-size employers that enhance human and economic health through thought leadership, innovative services, and collaboration. It provides value to its members by facilitating projects that improve the quality and moderate the cost of healthcare purchased by its members for their employees, dependents, and retirees. Health Action Council also collaborates with key stakeholders – health plans, physicians, hospitals, and the pharmaceutical industry – to improve the quality and efficiency of healthcare in the community.