How Improving Public Health Could Save the Economy

The U.S. economy is in dire straits with an unemployment rate of 11.1% and 17.8 million Americans without a job. This figure doesn’t tell the whole story, as it only includes people actively looking for work. Many people are currently on the sidelines of the job market as they recover from COVID-19 or wait until they feel it is safe to go back to work.

The coronavirus pandemic has forever changed the way we view public health in this country. The pandemic has shuttered businesses across the nation. The only way to succeed in business these days is to adhere to the latest safety guidelines, including practicing personal hygiene, wearing face masks, and maintaining social distancing. It’s not just about limiting the spread of the virus; it’s about making sure employees and customers feel safe occupying spaces.

A recent study from the McKinsey Global Institute highlights the relationship between public health and the domestic economy. They found that poor public health reduces global gross domestic product (GDP) by 15% each year. That means the world could be making 15% more goods and profits if the public were healthier. Could the pandemic change our understanding of the economy for the better?

How Health Affects the Economy

The world is currently trying to contain the coronavirus. Business owners large and small are paying more attention to the health and safety of their employees than ever before by implementing regular temperature and symptom checks, free COVID-19 testing, and paid sick leave.

These kinds of policies help workers go back to work safely, so they can continue to earn a paycheck. With sick leave policies, they don’t have to worry about going bankrupt if they do get infected.

The McKinsey Global Institute has been looking at all the ways public health can affect economic prosperity. Their new report called Prioritizing Health: A Prescription for Prosperity makes the case for these kinds of investments in public health. Poor health reduces efficiency among the working-age population. They believe the coronavirus pandemic will likely double that figure for 2020, reducing GDP by up to 30% by the end of the year.

They say the world can recoup around 70% of these losses by preventing future outbreaks and public health crises. This includes improving the cleanliness and safety of various working environments, supporting and adopting healthier behaviors, and increasing access to healthcare, medicine, and life-saving vaccines.

The world can recoup the other 30% of these losses by treating diseases and conditions more effectively, including heart disease, cancer, and infectious diseases like COVID-19. The sooner these individuals recover, the faster they can go back to work.

The ROI of Public Health

The report goes on to make the case that investing in public health is good for business in more ways than one.

They say every dollar governments and countries invest in public health, including preventing and treating medical conditions, would deliver an economic benefit of 2 to $4. That means public health carries an ROI of around 400%.

Researchers admit that making these changes would be difficult for some countries. Low-income nations would likely have to spend billions of dollars to build a healthcare infrastructure from scratch. But high-income countries like the U.S. already have these systems in place. It’s about utilizing these services and connecting the dots between companies and their employees.

From a business perspective, paying for regular cancer screening for employees is much less expensive than having an employee die from cancer due to a lack of prevention. Such a loss would lead to a major dip in productivity, and the company would have to pay thousands of dollars to replace the worker.

If employers realize that keeping employees safe and healthy is good for business, we could lower the rate of chronic disease across the globe.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Improving public health is the only way we are going to get the U.S. economy moving again. Even after the pandemic, employers, state, and local governments need to focus on limiting the spread of disease, providing a safe, clean working environment, and helping their workers lead healthy, fulfilled lives.

Keeping workers healthy means assessing their mental health needs as well. Anxiety, depression, trouble sleeping, and other mental health concerns can lead to long-term problems for the economy. Research shows that chronic conditions, including low back pain, mental health, and migraines can reduce the productivity of workers by up to 5%.

Giving workers more time off could reduce these concerns, so they have more time to process their emotions, talk with friends and family, and don’t feel as much pressure to overwork themselves. They will also have more time to eat healthy and exercise.

Let’s not forget that many workers have children. Giving employees more time off will help them spend more time with their families. Reducing behavioral health conditions in children could add almost $600 billion in 2040 to global GDP.

We shouldn’t have to choose between earning a paycheck and maintaining our health. This is a false dichotomy.  Protecting our health today means we can go to work tomorrow.

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