In a Highly Connected World, Disease Is Not Isolated from Other Risks

Filling the gaps in hygiene research is critical to risk management and business resilience

Friday, June 30, 2023

By David Wheeler


For its 2023 Global Risks Report, the Word Economic Forum asked leaders across academia, business, government, the international community and civil society to rank a series of global risks according to their severity. Infectious diseases did not even break the top 10 most severe risks when considering their impact over a two-year period; it ranked 20th out of 32.

The sentiment of those surveyed was that COVID was not impactful enough to raise pandemic preparedness and resiliency to a higher level – leaving the chance that the U.S. will fall victim to similar impacts when the next pandemic arises.

Even as the pandemic recedes in public consciousness, and as the public health emergency ends in the U.S., it is critical for risk managers to stay vigilant, and to learn from it. As the recent “tripledemic” – the convergence of COVID-19, the flu and RSV – made clear, COVID will remain present, and other illnesses will still emerge.

RGHI’s David Wheeler: COVID was “a stark warning.”

Risk managers must prioritize the comprehensive assessment of risks stemming from communicable diseases and learn how to create best practices that mitigate impact early on and prepare for the next pandemic, not only for the sake of protecting employee health, but also to reduce business disruption.

Economic Consequences

The reality is that human, business and economic health are intertwined. The pandemic’s impact on GDP speaks for itself: According to the International Monetary Fund, the global median GDP dropped about 4% from 2019 to 2020. Certain industries were hit particularly hard, though many were challenged. Take travel and tourism: According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, in 2019, travel and tourism constituted 10.4% of global GDP. This fell dramatically to 5.5% in 2020.

We need schools and businesses to stay open. It is imperative for the good of society. This means we need investment in nonpharmaceutical interventions and pandemic preparedness as well. Not only do businesses have a responsibility to prepare for what is next, but they also have a responsibility to support the discussion of resilience and what that means to public health as it will ultimately have an effect on their employees, communities, customers, and their bottom line.

For all businesses, regardless of sector, the lesson is bigger than what happened between those years or even since. This isn’t just a pandemic challenge.

Day-to-Day Reality

Hygiene and the prevention of disease transmission are a daily risk – and one that risk managers already refer to regularly, though they may not realize it. A cursory look at corporate 10-K reports reveals a bevy of risks that can be linked to hygiene, though they are not explicitly noted as such. Just to name a few: “labor shortages” that can stem from illness; “workplace flexibility,” which can relate to hot-desking and sharing personal space; “reductions in leisure travel” that can come from fear of or recent exposure to disease; and “negative impacts at manufacturing sites,” which harken back to COVID-19-related factory shutdowns that left supply chains vulnerable on a global scale that took years to recover from.

While COVID-19 was explicitly named in 10-Ks during the pandemic, hygiene-related risks that underlie disease transmission are not granted the attention warranted. Hygiene and business resilience are inextricably connected, and risk managers who recognize this will be able to better protect their organizations.

After the last few years, the magnitude of the risk of contagious disease to business’ bottom lines should be apparent, but little has been done to mitigate the ramifications of what is actually an everyday risk that most people simply can’t see. When we accept that “the flu is going around school, my kid is bound to catch it, and I’m going to miss work,” we’re abdicating control over something science says we actually can impact. And we’re accepting that the related business risks of that one family being sick – absenteeism and reduced productivity, supply chain disruption, contamination, etc. – can’t be influenced.

If we don’t consider the value of reducing the risk of that one family, then we are not preparing for the magnified daily disease risks of the next pandemic and the many families – employees, suppliers, customers – it will impact.

Moving the Risk Management Needle

The way COVID-19 has stymied business and broader economic conditions during the past few years should serve as a stark warning. But in order for risk managers to incorporate hygiene into their risk mitigation planning, the science needs to be nurtured. A lack of scalable, unassailable, neutral science that explores contagion and transmission has led to confusing and at times contradictory guidance around communicable disease protection and prevention best practices, leaving space for politics to blur the issue.

Take masks, for example. Throughout the pandemic, guidelines about masking evolved, eroding trust and creating uncertainty around who should wear them and when. It was not until December 2021 that a comprehensive, declarative study on masks as protection from COVID-19 transmission was published that indicated their effectiveness in a way that created meaningful action from policymakers across the globe. And yet, hesitancy and confusion remain to this day.

At the present time, people have vested political interests in avoiding current science, leading to a stronger case to build an unassailable scientific foundation that can mend the divide and create an overall more resilient population, and thus resilient businesses.

Without clear, decisive data around respiratory (and other) hygiene, those who influence human behavior – from government agencies to business leaders to risk managers – are left with a void on how to enact change. These entities should be armed with credible, unwavering evidence to support recommendations, policies, and communications that serve the public, businesses and the economy.

Data-Driven Decisions

Investment in scalable research that evaluates not only the health outcomes but also the financial efficacy of hygiene interventions is essential. This will offer risk managers the ability to make informed decisions about which mitigation practices to implement and how.

Some risk managers may decide that certain interventions – such as providing hand sanitizer and assigned desk spaces, or even redesigning their facilities to keep workers a certain distance apart – are worth the investment, while other interventions are not. However, without a foundation in scientific research, these recommendations are at best educated guesses, and their health- and cost- effectiveness are not assured.

A research-backed approach to hygiene interventions can offer risk managers insight and economic grounding into what suits their needs and the approaches that will best protect their businesses. Conversely, the absence of such data could result in substantial financial loss due to uninformed decision-making regarding hygiene risks.

A Risk-Based Approach

What’s lacking – and very much needed – is a risk-based approach to hygiene.

Neutral, authoritative, scalable data is the missing link between hygiene-related risk and more efficient, effective protection. Without this data, risk managers are forced to rely on ever-changing guidance or even gut instinct.

Employee and business resilience is on the line. Naming poor hygiene as a risk factor is the first step to catalyzing change. Taking action by supporting the science needed to create a risk-based framework for specific infectious diseases and environmental hygiene risks should be a philanthropic priority for businesses that seek to have a return on their investment in environmental and social good. Until risk managers and other leaders do so, businesses, societies, and our overall economy will remain vulnerable.


David Wheeler is currently Acting Executive Director, Reckitt Global Hygiene Institute (RGHI). In this role, he is building an organization dedicated to improving the human condition by understanding and disseminating best practices in hygiene. The institute is a public health research and innovation hub that will bridge epidemiology, public health and behavioral insights to generate practical, high-quality scientific research that leads to enduring behavior change. Wheeler worked previously for Covidien, Medtronic, an industrial design consultancy and several startups, and he founded consulting firm Cognitive Sequence. He holds an MBA degree from Babson College, Olin School of Business; and a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering and a master’s in manufacturing engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute. 


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