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We all know we should be doing things such as participating in employer-matched 401K programs, exercising regularly, and cutting back on our french fry consumption—yet the great majority of us fail to do so. Why is poor decision making so prevalent in today’s society? Moreover, what role can the business community play in helping us make decisions that are more personally and socially beneficial?
It was these complex and far-reaching questions that were the subject of lively discussion at the McIntire School of Commerce’s 2011 Fall Forum, titled “Cultivating Well-Being: The Necessary Role of Business Leaders, Researchers, and Educators.” The forum, which was free and open to the public, was held Oct. 21, 2011, in the University of Virginia’s Old Cabell Hall and presented by the McIntire School’s Center for Growth enterprises.
Kicking off the discussion was keynote speaker Punam Anand Keller, Charles Henry Jones Third Century Professor of Management, Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College. Keller, an internationally recognized expert in the areas of health promotion and financial literacy, discussed not only the challenges of defining and quantifying well-being, but also of improving the dishearteningly low participation rates of corporate and public well-being programs. Keller outlined some of the methods she has developed for improving the success of such programs, including simplifying the instructions for opening a retirement account, and showing employees a five-minute video featuring their colleagues discussing why they’d chosen to participate in a particular well-being program. “You have to show people the benefits of engaging in certain behaviors,” Keller said. “You have to tailor your marketing to their needs.”
Keller also challenged audience members to consider how, through their businesses, research, or teaching, they might work to improve the well-being of their various relevant stakeholders. Perhaps most significantly, though, Keller was keen to stress the compatibility of profitability and practices that enhance employee and consumer well-being. “Well-being is positively correlated with profitability,” she told listeners. “There’s a direct relationship between employee and customer satisfaction and growth, profitability, and consumer loyalty.”
Keller’s talk was followed by a panel discussion of academic and policy perspectives on well-being, featuring panelists Amar Cheema, Associate Professor (Marketing area), McIntire School of Commerce; Dogan Eroglu, Associate Director for Communication Science, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Dorrie Fontaine, Sadie Heath Cabaniss Professor of Nursing and Dean of the School of Nursing, University of Virginia; Keller; and Josh Wright, Acting Director, Office of Financial Education and Financial Access, U.S. Department of the Treasury. The panel was moderated by Jim Burroughs, Associate Professor (Marketing area), McIntire School of Commerce.
The panel offered thought-provoking perspectives on issues ranging from the question of free choice to the extent to which a government should make moral judgments on behalf of its citizens. Eroglu, for instance, pointed out the degree to which bad personal health decisions—such as smoking or eating an unhealthful diet—affect the entire society. “Health is not ‘somebody else’s business,’” he said. “Business must work with society to help solve problems that impact society.”
Commenting on a discussion of the threat of government paternalism, Wright offered that—in his opinion—there is no such thing as free choice. “Whether government- or market-influenced, all choices are biased in some way,” he told the audience. “There’s no need to mandate behaviors, but why not help to structure people’s decisions? Why not have people default into positive programs, such as savings plans?”
The panel also discussed the contentious issue of morality in the policy-making processes of business and government leaders. Eroglu pointed out the complexity of the issue: Whether or not policy decisions are cast in moral terms, he said, “they may prove to have enormous moral and social consequences.”
The forum closed with a panel discussion of executive perspectives on well-being, featuring panelists Dianne Morse Houghton (McIntire ’82), Chief Operating Officer, New Leaders; Keller; Jerry Ng, President and Chief Executive Officer, Bank Tabungan Pensiunan Nasional (BTPN); and Andy Schoonover (McIntire ’01), Chief Executive Officer, Valued Relationships Inc. The panel was moderated by McIntire Dean Carl Zeithaml.
The panel focused largely on the relationship between business practices that enhance the well-being of employees and customers, and growth and profitability. Agreeing that such business practices undoubtedly have a positive impact on the bottom line, the panelists went on to discuss particular ways of enacting and improving them.
Houghton, for instance, stressed the benefits of investing in employees, and creating the most positive possible workplace environment. “Never have a doubt that creating an environment where people can do their best work is the best thing for the bottom line,” she told the audience. Schoonover agreed, pointing out that his own benevolent practices with regard to his employees have led to remarkably low rates of turnover, and continued growth within a flat industry. “There’s a natural connection between treating employees well and return on investment,” Schoonover said.
Taking a slightly different tack, Ng—whose Indonesian bank has been growing at a 40 percent annual rate—stressed the business benefits of creating an organization that is truly and broadly beneficial to its customers. BTPN, which serves a largely low-income, elderly clientele, not only offers caring customer service, but also superb auxiliary services, including free medical clinics in its bank branches; seminars on living healthy physical, spiritual, and social lives; and courses in financial management. Engaging in such well-being-enhancing practices, Ng said, “is not only philosophically good, it creates competitive advantages.”
Reflecting on the discussion, Zeithaml commented on the common sense nature of many of the most effective well-being-enhancing practices. Such practices, he noted, involved creativity, but not complexity. “There are simple ways,” Zeithaml said, “to make a big difference.”