The 21st-Century Employer Must Be a Steward of Public Health

How can employers make public health a central part of work culture and business management? Banner image: Shutterstock/Robert Kneschke

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders  from around the world and all parts of society  address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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As part of an OECD Forum series, the virtual event Empowering Workers, Delivering a Jobs-rich Recovery took place on 13 July 2021 —watch the replay below!


Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, forward-looking business leaders and employers were focused on the global mega-trend of aging as an essential factor in their talent strategy. Now, the pandemic has only underscored the critical importance of aging for every business. To attract workers and succeed in this new landscape, organisations must show leadership on a range of issues, including elder caregiving, training and management for older workers, financial health for 21st-century retirement or exploding mental health issues as recently highlighted by OECD Leadership.

The Global Coalition on Aging (GCOA)—the world's leading business voice on aging—has been working with leading employers for 10 years to navigate the changing workplace and business environment brought by aging demographic shifts, which will continue for decades to come. From healthcare to the workplace, aging requires major changes across society and COVID-19 has only accelerated this trend. Indeed, employers must now embrace a new role: as the stewards of public health.

COVID-19 has spotlighted even more starkly the profoundly powerful link between public health and economic viability. Our new report, Employers’ Role in the COVID-19 Environment: Winning in the Vastly Changed World of Work, highlights the unique convergence between the megatrend of aging and the COVID-19 pandemic in the workplace and offers insights to inform employers’ public health and workforce strategies at this intersection. It draws on over a decade of work to define considerations and best practices for employers’ role in healthy aging.

Read the report: "Employers' Role in the COVID-19 Environment: Winning in the Vastly Changed World of Work" offering ideas about how employers can effectively navigate this challenging time

Read the report: "Employers' Role in the COVID-19 Environment: Winning in the Vastly Changed World of Work" offering ideas about how employers can effectively navigate this challenging time

Chief among the report’s findings is the guidance to all employers “to elevate public health as a central feature of their culture and embed it into management”. Earlier trends have led to the creation of C-Suite responsibilities, such as the Chief Technology Officer or Chief Diversity Officers. Today, as we learn through COVID-19—and, coincidentally, recognise the launch of the WHO/UN Decade of Healthy Ageing—we must consider the first and most compelling of our report’s recommendations: “Now is the moment to create the Chief Public Health Officer, who will have the right expertise and ask the right questions to advance the changes needed for success in the 21st-century aging world”. 

Source: Global Coalition on Aging

The employer’s role as a steward of public health has been building over time, and it has now been elevated and become indisputable. Here are seven employer actions essential for this role and other emerging needs; moreover, they are in near-perfect alignment with parallel efforts within the OECD, where the changing world of work is joined by a new, COVID-19-inspired project Beyond Applause. It seeks to ensure care workers—and our societies as a whole—are better prepared for future health threats, as well as changing patterns of disease linked to ageing societies.

Implement COVID-19 vaccination education programmes. Valued, successful and thoughtful employers will be active and engaged to help their employees receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Such an employer will also then apply this to other prevention and wellness strategies to keep public health as a central driver of their value proposition.

Improve childcare, elder care, financial planning and other essential benefits. These employee benefits have already emerged as part of the new social contract prompted by the trends of longevity and population aging. In a work environment influenced by COVID-19, employers will need to increase their focus on solutions for caregiving and financial wellness, which will take on heightened importance.

Prioritise mental health. As highlighted in a recent Health Affairs article, and very much a concern of the OECD itself, mental illness represents a pressing crisis that demands action from employers, especially after the disruptions and loss caused by COVID-19. Services such as work-focused cognitive behavioural therapy and job coaching can help workers to diagnose and care for mental illness, manage its impacts and maintain productivity.

Read more on the Forum Network: "The Growing Mental Health Crisis in the Wake of COVID-19" by Husseini Manji, Global Head, Science for Minds, Johnson & Johnson

Read more on the Forum Network: "The Growing Mental Health Crisis in the Wake of COVID-19" by Husseini Manji, Global Head, Science for Minds, Johnson & JohnsonRead more on the Forum Network: "The Growing Mental Health Crisis in the Wake of COVID-19" by Husseini Manji, Global Head, Science for Minds, Johnson & Johnson

    Enact new approaches to employee engagement and recruitment. COVID-19 makes it imperative for employers to develop new approaches to virtual hiring, onboarding and training. This is essential to prepare for the virtual or hybrid workplace and multi-generational, diverse workforce of the future.

    Listen to employees’ wants and needs. Without a physical presence in many workplaces, employers will need to more actively seek out employees’ perceptions and concerns. This employee-sensing is key to inform decisions about benefits, policies, collaboration, culture and other topics.

    Recognise that communications are closely linked to core operations. Enhanced employer communications—built on transparency and engendering trust—and new ways to maintain and measure employee engagement must be designed in the context of a global pandemic.

    Cultivate leadership skills. Especially during a sustained crisis, employers need a bench of senior leaders who are also ready to take on the next challenges, supporting and aligning their employees in the process.

    Read the latest OECD Employment Outlook 2021: Navigating the COVID-19 crisis and recovery and find out more about the challenges brought about by the crisis and the policies to address them

    Read the latest OECD Employment Outlook 2021: Navigating the COVID-19 crisis and recovery and find out more about the challenges brought about by the crisis and the policies to address them

    Two decades into our 21st century, it ought not be surprising that the world of work is changing. Now, COVID-19 is already leading to structural shifts in our societies and economies, much like the Black Death in the Middle Ages that transformed how we think about labour; or the more recent 1918 Spanish flu that led to border closings and all-around isolation. These implications include not only a pandemic’s direct health impacts, but also what it reveals about our societies and the long-term challenges we face. Though the lessons of COVID-19 have yet to be fully understood, they are already emerging—and they are closely linked to population aging.

    For employers, the pandemic increases the importance of understanding changes in the length and trajectory of careers, what flexibility regimens are emerging and, not incidentally, enabling the positive link between work and health. One of the more valued ideas on global aging—to keep people active, engaged and working well past 20th century retirement and “old age” norms—offers a critical opportunity to jumpstart economic recovery during the COVID-19 pandemic. But employers, too, will have to be flexible in engaging and managing the workforce.

    Related Topics

    Tackling COVID-19 Health Future of Work


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    Michael Hodin

    CEO, Global Coalition on Aging