Why health-related workplace programs are like jumbo jets

Anna, a designer at the PT Tainan garment factory in Jakarta, Indonesia, receives information about family planning and reproductive health through a workplace program supported by Ann Inc. Photo by: Universal Access Project / UN Foundation

Back in 2008, five companies in the Philippines tried something that hadn’t been done before in their industries: they introduced a host of maternal and reproductive health services and made them available to their many female employees on site at the factories where they worked.

They trained staff to disseminate information and provide peer counseling and referrals to health services as needed. They made modern contraceptives available to those who wanted it at subsidized cost.

Within a year, all five businesses saw a significant return on their investment. Improving worker access to family planning and maternal health care led to fewer unintended pregnancies, fewer work days missed, and reported gains in overall employee health and wellbeing. Worker absenteeism and turnover dropped, and productivity improved. For every peso the companies spent implementing the programs, they reported savings of 130 pesos or more.

Today there are hundreds of health-related workplace programs in place in factories in Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Cambodia and at least a dozen other countries around the world achieving similar results. The HERproject, an initiative launched by Businesses for Social Responsibility, a global nonprofit organization, has active programs at 250 factories and 20 farms, reaching more than 285,000 low-income working women.

The programs have moved well beyond family planning and reproductive health as well, helping women improve nutrition and hygiene and raising awareness about waterborne diseases and HIV and AIDS. The impact on worker behavior has been substantial, the HERproject reports; at participating factories, there has been a 50 percent average increase in the number of women using family planning products, for example, and a 56 percent average jump in the number of women using health clinics on a regular basis.

A study conducted at four factories in Egypt and Pakistan found that every dollar invested in HERproject programs generated a $3 to $4 business return as a direct result of improved worker health and well-being. With greater awareness and access to services, female employees no longer skipped work during their monthly menstrual cycles; the percentage of women taking the maximum allowed days of monthly sick leave plummeted by 45 percent.

The labor force at these factories consists primarily of young women who have relocated from rural areas to cities like Phnom Penh and Chittagong seeking their first paid jobs, women from marginalized populations with limited experience and access to the means of managing their own health.

These workplace programs address this vast unmet need by integrating maternal and reproductive health services into the workplace culture, increasing knowledge and awareness of health issues and enhancing access to health services. Arming women with the tools and support they need to stay healthy and plan her family is empowering as well, enhancing their earning potential and economic status within the community.

Worker morale and gender relations on the job also improve through these programs. Factory owners in Bangladesh, for example, reported that increased awareness of reproductive health and gender related issues among their predominantly male, midlevel managerial staff led to better overall treatment of female employees, who in turn expressed a more positive attitude toward their employers.

The big challenge is not just getting these programs off the ground; it’s making them sustainable once donor support runs out. Factory owners that invest their own money and task their own HR personnel to implement and run these workplace programs are more likely to keep them going. In India, more and more vendors are already taking ownership, an encouraging trend.

To help scale the programs, we need more global champions like ANN INC. and Marks and Spencer, multinational corporations willing to find ways to encourage vendors to pursue them, to help make the case for local businesses to embrace the concept of worker well-being not just for its intrinsic social value but as a business imperative that helps the bottom line. MSD for Mothers continues to support efforts by the United Nations Foundation and the U.N. Population Fund to spur more businesses to implement workplace programs; it has also partnered with Accenture Development Partnerships to develop a financial toolkit to help businesses calculate costs and benefits, build their case based on ROI, and commit.

The Levi Strauss Foundation, which directly supports 50 workplace programs in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Haiti and five other countries, hopes 80 percent of Levi Strauss & Co. vendors will have worker well-being initiatives in place by 2020.

We must also engage with governments and advocate for labor policies that go further than the “do no harm” standard of old, and motivate employers to take proactive steps that can have a more meaningful impact on workers’ lives. Consumers are showing an increasing preference for “responsible” products, produced by socially responsible companies. To prove as much, we need transparency up and down supply chains.

Making sure women everywhere have access to timely, quality maternal health care and modern contraceptives is critical to reducing maternal mortality and morbidity worldwide. As women across the developing world continue to struggle for access to sexual and reproductive health services, we need to continue to find ways for the private sector to play its part. These workplace programs are like jumbo jets sitting on the tarmac, engines blazing. Let’s do what we can to help them take off.

We look forward to discussing workplace programs and other private sector-driven solutions at Women Deliver during an MSD for Mothers-sponsored session titled, “Whose Business is it Anyway? Tapping Local Businesses to Improve Maternal Health” on May 17. For more information, visit wd2016.org.

Interested in more stories about women's and girl’s health? Make sure to follow us this May for live Devex coverage of the fourth Women Deliver conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. Join the conversation by tagging @devex and using #WD2016.

About the authors

  • Priya Agrawal

    Dr. Priya Agrawal is an obstetrician/gynecologist, women's health expert and executive director of Merck for Mothers — Merck’s 10-year, $500 million initiative to reduce maternal mortality. Before joining Merck for Mothers, she was director of research and development for the Women and Health Initiative at Harvard School of Public Health and obstetric lead on the World Health Organization’s Safe Childbirth Checklist Program.
  • Daniel Lee

    Daniel Lee is executive director of the Levi Strauss Foundation. During his tenure, the foundation’s signature initiatives have included Pioneers in Justice, a program that equips next-generation civil rights leaders in San Francisco to amplify impact through the power of technology and networks, and Improving Worker Well-Being, which focuses on spurring partnerships between the company, factories and local partners for social impact. He received his A.B. in religion from Princeton University and Master of Divinity from Harvard University.