Companies have been working with suppliers to improve factory conditions and worker health and safety for decades; however, these efforts have fallen short. Robust code of conducts and continuous auditing may ensure that basic compliance expectations are met, but are these efforts really improving workers’ lives? Empowered workers are not only beneficial but required for sustainable business and healthy economies.
Through my work on HERproject and HERfinance—BSR’s workplace-based empowerment programs that focus on women’s health and financial education and access—I’ve seen firsthand the power that companies’ investments in workplace programs can have on workers’ lives, broader socioeconomic development, and of course, company operations.
During my on-the-ground visits in the past year, I’ve had the privilege of hearing stories that bring the case for investing in employee well-being to life. In India, Rathna, a peer educator, told me that since participating in HERproject she has aspirations to become a social worker so she can continue to help her family and community. In Bangladesh, I spoke to Zorina, who told me that before becoming a shasytho shokhi (health friend) she was very shy. But now that she has learned to talk about difficult subjects, she feels empowered to take action. She further explained that she and all of her peers need to keep well so they can work better and have better lives.
I could tell many more stories like the ones above. There are also several business reasons why companies should support workplace-based programs that focus on personal well-being. Here are my top five:
- Drive loyalty and leadership: Equipping employees with knowledge and skills to improve their own lives and their families’ lives is empowering. HERproject’s peer education model, for example, builds women’s confidence and communication skills, creating opportunities for leadership. Not only do they lead during the health trainings, but participating women are also more likely to assume leadership roles on the factory lines. Employees who feel their employer is investing in their advancement will also be more loyal and less likely to leave for other employment opportunities.
- Realize business benefits: For programs like HERproject, increased health knowledge and awareness can directly translate into improved productivity and retention as well as lower absenteeism and turnover. These direct benefits help ensure that factories meet their production deadlines and have a dependable and consistent workforce, and ultimately, they lead to stronger relationships with their brand customers.
- Don’t underestimate the power of “soft” business benefits: Beyond productivity improvements, workplace programs also drive improvements in worker-management relationships. When employees see factory management investing time and money into a program for their benefit, they become more open to communicating with their managers. And when managers start viewing their employees as potential leaders, they become more encouraged to work together to find joint solutions to factory challenges.
- Advance your human rights agenda through workplace programs: Investing in workplace well-being programs can be a tangible way to advance your company’s broader human rights agenda, which is particularly important when operating in challenging contexts. By starting with a concrete intervention like a health or financial literacy program, for example, you can make the case for how workplace programs can improve the lives of employees and benefit the business. Once the benefits are realized, it can be easier to change the mindsets of management about more difficult human rights issues, such as gender equality and violence in the workplace, both of which have deep cultural roots.
- Support national and local socioeconomic development goals: Investing in health and financial literacy programs are easy ways to support social and economic development goals, including meeting commitments to the Millennium Development Goals. Factory workers, for example, often miss out on community-based programs because they are at work all day. By bringing health education and access to financial products and services to the factory, we can ensure that women working in factories are also gaining access to information and services that they need to improve their circumstances and those of their families. We also know that women, if given more control over their finances, are more likely to invest in the health and education of their families.
For me, the case for investing in well-being programs is clear. What are ways that you are supporting worker well-being in your workplace and in supply chains?