17/03/2016 10:14 GMT | Updated 18/03/2017 05:12 GMT

How Businesses Can Help Reduce the Health Risk of Unhealthy Environments

A new report by the World Health Organization (WHO) has found that approximately 12.6 million people died as a result of living or working in an unhealthy environment in 2012 - nearly one in four of total global deaths. Environmental risk factors such as air pollution, water contamination and wider climate change issues have led to more than 100 different types of avoidable diseases and health complications.

From the data, we can see that the largest share of environmental-related deaths can be attributed to non-communicable diseases including strokes, heart disease and cancer. These findings continue to highlight the link between health and environment. It's becoming increasingly clear that climate change is one of the biggest healthcare challenges of the 21st century.

WHO has recommended various strategies to reduce the environmental disease burden, such as greater investment into clean energy and improving cities through better infrastructure planning. I believe businesses have a significant role to play as part of this wider solution by harnessing the energy of the people they employ, investing in renewable energy projects and showing leadership through strong environmental commitments.

Harnessing the power of people

With almost half of the world's population in work, the collective power of businesses to have a positive impact on the environment and the health of the world is huge due to the sheer number of people they employ. Businesses could influence employee behaviour and encourage people to take positive steps to protect the environment they live work in, for example by promoting alternative transport to work and reducing non-essential business travel.

In 2015, we spearheaded the Madrid Healthy Cities project, which brought together eight global and Spanish companies in Madrid who signed a joint manifesto to improve the workplace and surrounding environment to benefit employee health. Running over the course of eight-weeks, the programme included physical activity, weekly training sessions, access to digital tools and health advice, and measurement of participants' progress through wearable devices. Using the Heart Age Check tool, the initial results of Madrid Healthy Cities showed that on average participants decreased their cardiovascular risk by 27 weeks. This is just one example of how businesses can work together to promote healthier lifestyles through the workplace, while also encouraging more environmentally-friendly activities and behaviours.

Investing in renewables

As well as influencing employee behaviour, there are steps businesses can take to cut their overall carbon emissions, implement more environmentally-friendly policies and help to improve the health of the world through strong leadership. For example, using alternative forms of electricity like solar and wind power can help to decrease reliance on fossil fuels and reduce carbon emissions and air pollution.

At Bupa, we've reduced our absolute carbon footprint by 23% from 2009 to 2015 by investing £50m in over 950 low carbon and renewable energy projects on our own properties worldwide. The money has funded projects including 233 solar installations in Bupa buildings around the world, generating green energy to power our care homes, hospitals and offices. From 2016 onwards we are continuing to invest in water and waste management projects, and aim to double or use of renewable energy by 2020.

Showing leadership in tackling climate change

Taking action to reduce carbon emissions and tackle climate change makes sense for businesses. As a global health and care company, this is especially important to us as the link between environment and health is so clear. Not only have we reduced our carbon footprint since 2009, we've also grown as a business and invested in renewable technologies that represent good financial savings. It's been important for us as a leadership team to place our carbon commitment at the forefront of our business performance. Through senior sponsorship, we've stuck with our commitment, and successfully reduced our carbon footprint while growing our business.

The recommendations from WHO are not impossible to implement, but require wider cooperation and collaboration from all businesses. The more businesses can do to drive towards a low carbon economy, the more we can do to improve the health of the world. A healthier planet helps to create a healthier workforce and, ultimately, a healthier society.