Health, wellbeing and resilience: proving the business benefits of investing in water, sanitation and hygiene

6 min read
Shri Ram works at the Superhouse tannery and says after getting handwashing facilities and drinking water his health has improved and he is now able to work more and falls ill less often as compared to previous times. Unnao, Uttar Pradesh, India. 12 A ...
Image: WaterAid/ Anindito Mukherjee

Access to clean water, decent toilets and handwashing facilities for employees is essential – at home, at work and throughout the supply chain. Our four-year pilot project working with agricultural smallholder farmers, leather tanneries, ready-made garment factories and tea estates proves that business investment in these essentials pays off.

Businesses depend on safe and reliable water supplies for many of their production processes: growing crops, washing and dyeing fabrics, cleaning and cooling equipment.

While the role of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in economic development and resilience is well documented, there is less evidence of the impact of these services on workplace performance, and on employee health and wellbeing.

That’s why we embarked on a research project, the first of its kind, to show the business benefits of investing in WASH. In collaboration with Diageo, Gap Inc., HSBC, Twinings and ekaterra (part of Unilever at the start of the project), we set out to test our theory that businesses would see numerous benefits by investing in WASH, and to generate robust evidence of the financial value. Our aim was to encourage more companies to invest in WASH services for their employees, and to use their influence to persuade suppliers to do the same.

Over four years, we collected data from ten workplaces in four different sectors across four countries: tea estates in India and Kenya, ready-made garment factories in Bangladesh, leather tanneries in India, and agricultural smallholder farmers in Tanzania.

Our interventions focused on four main areas – clean water, toilets, handwashing facilities and hygiene behaviour training – and included the installation of drinking water points, handwashing stations and rainwater harvesting systems, as well as toilet restoration, hygiene training and menstrual health and hygiene training. We carried out risk assessments to identify the gaps and opportunities across the businesses, and how best to design and implement each WASH solution. Guided by technical experts and consultants, we recorded a set of baseline indicators and compared our results to them at the end of each project.

Antony Mungai, a hygiene session facilitator, washes his hands at a toilet block at an ekaterra tea plantation in Kenya.
Antony Mungai, a hygiene session facilitator, washes his hands at a toilet block at an ekaterra tea plantation in Kenya. Image: WaterAid/Edgar Kemboy

Each of the ten studies also examined the effect of WASH services on employee absenteeism, attrition, productivity and punctuality, as well as the number of medical incidents at each workplace. Where possible, we calculated a return on investment and projections for investment over ten years. A few headline results are that:

  • Absenteeism decreased across the projects, by 29% at the leather tanneries in India and by 21% on the tea estate in Kenya.
  • Medical incidents decreased. Clinics on the tea estate in India saw a 5% drop in incidents while the tea estate in Kenya saw a 22% decrease.
  • Productivity increased by 27% in the tea estates in India.
  • Punctuality increased by 5% at the ready-made garment factories in Bangladesh and by 6% at the leather tanneries in India.

The research also showed that for every US$1 spent on WASH services in the apparel sector – the ready-made garment factories and the tanneries combined – there was a $1.32 return on investment, while the combined projects in the tea sector saw a $2.05 return.

Challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic

The project was not without its difficulties, particularly as it was carried out during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sudden nationwide lockdowns caused delays to data collection. And, in the early months of the pandemic, widespread fear, stigma and uncertainty mean it is likely some employees and their families under-reported any WASH-related diseases. As a result, our findings on sick days and loss of work may not be accurate representations, nor do we have a full picture of what the business benefits would have been without the impacts of COVID-19.

To reflect these challenges and provide a more complete story, we have drawn some conclusions based on reasoning and our own contextual understanding. For example, when calculating the business benefits of the study, we assessed the results for each individual business and a proportion of the total benefits was attributed to the WASH interventions, based on stakeholder interviews and expert input. (Read the methodology note (PDF) for further details.)

We encountered an additional challenge in Tanzania where the project aimed to improve the water supply for a smallholder farming community that grows and sells sorghum to local breweries. A lack of data from smallholder farming supply chains made it difficult to measure and calculate quantitative data and demonstrate impact during the project period. However, speaking to farmers and the brewery highlighted the real challenges smallholder farmers face in a changing climate, and demonstrated the business benefits of investing in WASH through qualitative and anecdotal evidence.

Insights into implementation

Despite the challenges, we identified valuable insights into the best ways to ensure workplaces provide WASH facilities so that companies, brands and suppliers see the positive impacts.

In the workplace, climate-resilient WASH services (PDF) help future-proof businesses by ensuring that the facilities keeping workforces healthy and productive will last. The sustainability of water-intensive industries, like agriculture and apparel, is at risk due to the increase in extreme weather events. Investment in innovative technologies such as rainwater harvesting can reduce operating costs and build resilience for the workforce and business.

Capital expenditure can be daunting and returns might not be immediate, but some low-cost solutions can provide big results in the long term. Initial evidence from the pilots suggests that hygiene behaviour change training (PDF) can drive business benefits and, potentially, the greatest ROI. However, there must be ongoing investment in this training to sustain positive results.

Shamima Khatun, a textiles employee at a ready-made garment factory in Narayanganj, Bangladesh, washes her hands using new community facilities.
Shamima Khatun, a textiles employee at a ready-made garment factory in Narayanganj, Bangladesh, washes her hands using new community facilities. Image: WaterAid/ Fabeha Monir

It was also clear that the best results came when investment at work was supported with investment in the surrounding communities

  • On the tea estates in India, access to clean water improved by almost 20%; 74% of households had a water source within 50m at the end of the project, compared with 55% at the start. 
  • In Bangladesh, community investment ensured that 26% of households had safely managed toilets. No household had access to these at the start of the project. 
  • In Kenya, there was a 37% increase in the proportion of tea pickers washing their hands, and they washed them more often – nearly doubling from 2.8 to 5.3 times a day at the end of the project. 

A ripple effect beyond the bottom line

All these findings build a compelling case for companies to invest in WASH services throughout their supply chains and surrounding communities, to improve the health and wellbeing of their employees and boost business at the same time. We understand that some businesses may be put off by the initial capital expenditure and the fact that the returns are not always immediate, but low-cost solutions can often provide big results in the long term. 

While water and sanitation services strengthen the health and wellbeing of employees and boost their motivation and productivity, fewer staff sick days means fewer medical and sick pay costs for the employer. Providing these services can also help companies raise their brand value, build resilience and reduce risks in the supply chain. 

At the mid-point of the Sustainable Development Goals, the need for concrete action to tackle the global water and sanitation crisis is back in the spotlight. Alongside governmental investment, the private sector has an important role to play. We believe that investing in water and sanitation facilities should no longer be seen by businesses as an act of philanthropy or corporate social responsibility, but as a core business priority and a smart way to future-proof any company.  

If businesses, governments and civil society work together, we can meet the global goal and achieve 100% access to safe and sustainable WASH by 2030. 

Kate Holme is WaterAid’s Strategic Partnerships Director.  

Top image: Shri Ram working at the Superhouse tannery leather in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh, India.