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Executive Perspectives

EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Strengthening your supply chain with workplace wellbeing

Sally Uren

17 Apr 2015

In 2009, 150 leaders gathered at the World Heart Assembly to declare a new major global emergency: non-communicable diseases (NCDs). Non-communicable diseases, which include cancer, heart disease and obesity, kill 38 million people per year.

Fast forward to present day and the NCD crisis is growing. Although non-communicable diseases are the largest cause of mortalities in the world, they are largely preventable – which means that intervention and education programmes can have a significant positive impact.

Where better to educate and intervene, then, than in the workplace? People spend more waking hours at work than they do anywhere else – and with half of the world’s population in work, this presents a major opportunity for employers to help millions of people to lead healthier lifestyles, reducing the risk factors for NCDs such as smoking and obesity.

Recently Forum for the Future hosted a roundtable with the global healthcare company Bupa, where we discussed the impact of workplace wellbeing programmes on employee health – whether that was encouraging them to make healthier nutritional choices, helping them quit smoking, as well as encouraging a better work/life balance. Other businesses in attendance included some of the UK’s biggest retailers, such as M&S.

In addition to the ethical imperative of implementing such programmes, there’s the business benefit. Companies are finally beginning to realise that their people are at the heart of successful sustainability programmes and that employees who are healthier are happier, more productive, are more likely to go the extra mile. What’s more, workplace wellbeing is crucial for the long term viability of businesses, as well as helping us meet the urgent global NCD agenda.

But it’s just not white collar workers in high-rise offices we should be targeting when trying to make headway with workplace wellbeing. Large businesses have supply chains with casts of thousands, where their purchasing power and global reach has the potential to significantly impact their suppliers – particularly in emerging markets, where the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that over a period of thirty years NCDs are expected to rise by more than 60% by 2020, compared to a rise of less than 10% in developed countries.

There’s a huge opportunity here to improve the health of the world, and some businesses including M&S (see case study below) have already made great strides in this area, but some groundwork must be laid first.

Overall, there needs to be a change in our perceptions of workplace wellbeing, so that it’s seen as a core business driver by senior leaders, with a clear business benefit. Currently, employee health and wellbeing programmes can be perceived as expensive, unnecessary and not having a discernible, measurable impact. We know that this isn’t the case – and furthermore that such programmes can be a staff attraction and retention tool in the war for talent.

We also must change societal expectations around the role of business has to play in employee health. This is one area where Bupa is pioneering – as a purposeful business, it is genuinely dedicated to improving the health of millions, starting with its employees who are supported in every aspect of their health and wellbeing, whether that’s cancer detection guides, healthy eating and physical activity opportunities and education, or smoking cessation help.

Lastly, the private and public sectors need to work together much more productively to drive the wellbeing agenda forward. Collectively, there’s a huge amount for each sector to gain from the others’ advocacy, partnerships, access and global reach. Strengthening solutions to combat NCDs should be a shared commitment, with effective, multi-sectoral and inter-sectoral strategies at the global, regional and national levels that are fully integrated into healthcare systems and extend beyond the traditional health sector.

Clearly, there’s a huge opportunity here to improve the health of millions, but first a real step-change in our collective thinking is required. We all need to become better systems thinkers, and all organisations, private and public alike need a better understanding of the system in which they operate, and the levers they can pull to create lasting systemic change. At Forum for the Future, we aim to help organisations and entire sectors use system thinking to explore these kinds of opportunities and the associated challenges, and to ultimately create a more sustainable future.


A global business that’s leading by example is Marks & Spencer (M&S), whose value chain includes two million workers across farms and factories, 84,000 employees and 34 million customers each week.

In 2011 Marks and Spencer partnered with the Reproductive Health Association of Cambodia (RHAC) and Project Hope, an international health organisation, to develop a programme called HEALTHWORKS, enabling factories to deliver basic health services to its workers in Cambodia.

The main elements of the programme were basic health and nutrition delivered to workers through training sessions and health days, setting up health committees in the factories, upskilling staff in on-site medical rooms to enable them to educate and deliver information, administering basic medicines, and addressing the issue of anaemia amongst female garment workers, which was identified as a health risk.

M&S worked with the factory management teams so they agreed to support the expansion of existing health services and implement new services. Dedicated health committees were developed with factory management, HR managers, supervisors, worker representatives and clinic staff to manage sustainable health systems in the factory. Through this committee the factory management was able to manage the success of the project against social KPIs, such as usage of clinic and reduction in anaemia.

Having implemented the programme, M&S then commissioned a business impact report with a local Cambodian organisation called 3S Group, to measure a series of key KPIs such as usage of clinic and reduction in anaemia, absenteeism and productivity.  The final report showed on average improvements in all KPI’s, for example clinic usage had doubled, 61% of those tested were cured of anaemia, absenteeism reduced by 5% and productivity increased by 7%, due to healthier workers.

The Project ran for 18 months from 2012 – 2014 and involved seven factories and 14000 workers.


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