By Melissa J. Anderson

Last week, a group of CEOs at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland announced a new commitment to workplace health. According to Michael B. McCallister, chairman and CEO of Humana, the Workplace Wellness Alliance will focus on fighting chronic diseases in order to boost workplace productivity.

In a Reuters blog post, he wrote:

“But healthy workplaces are not a given. One-third of the U.S. workforce suffers from preventable diseases in any given year, according to The Milken Institute’s 2007 report, “An Unhealthy America: The Economic Burden of Chronic Disease.” These chronic diseases, such as diabetes, hypertension, mental disorders and cancer, trigger an annual economic loss estimated at more than $1 trillion. For the entire world, the WEF and World Health Organization estimate that figure to be at $2 trillion.”

Chronic disease are costly and they kill, and according to McCallister, there’s evidence that workplace initiatives aimed at helping employees to lead healthier lifestyles pay off. He continued:

“Historically, chronic disease is driven by just a few risk factors and behaviors, such as smoking, inactivity, poor diet and stress. Half of those who die from a chronic disease each year are in their productive years. Encouragingly, workplace wellness programs that address lifestyle changes and promote health prove to be very beneficial, according to a 2008 joint report by the WEF and WHO [PDF]. Indeed, these programs have demonstrated clear returns on investment (ROI) with cost savings of up to $4 for every $1 invested.”

Rather than taking a piecemeal approach to the problem, several corporations will band together to fight chronic disease. The main benefit to a concerted, collaborative effort is that, with more participants, the group will have more metrics. With more data, he explains, the group will be able to come up with better solutions on what works.

The timing for this initiative is no accident. In 2011, the UN will also move its focus to chronic, incommunicable diseases. The business case for the focus – the idea that fighting these diseases, and simply encouraging employees to lead healthier lifestyles, could boost global productivity – is being led by the World Economic Forum.

So far, the group the Workplace Wellness Alliance has 24 members, including Humana, Boston Consulting Group, Novo Nordisk, BT, Nestle, Johnson & Johnson, Unilever, and more. The results of a pilot program revealed that employees at participating companies were “far healthier than the average person in OECD countries when it comes to BMI, smoking and alcohol consumption.”

The details of how the Workplace Wellness Alliance will actually work to influence workforce behavior have yet to appear. It could take the route of an awareness campaign, or incentives to eat healthier, etc. On the other hand it could have disastrous consequences if the participating companies insist on too harsh a strategy – like firing smokers, or refusing to hire overweight individuals.

These CEOs may have the best of intentions, but what will make or break this initiative is the implementation. It’s important that the program takes an incentive-based tact, rather than an authoritarian one.