The word “sustainability” almost certainly triggers thoughts of the environment, climate change, and perhaps even the recent COP26 event. It may be surprising that the top Sustainability Development Goals, or SDGs, are actually dominated by the human condition.

At this week’s Global Economics of Mutuality Forum, the results of a survey of seven very different countries (Australia, Nigeria, Singapore, South Africa, Sweden, the UK, and the US) revealed that the top four SDGs all relate to directly to quality of life, with climate action being the 8th most important goal, on average.

The top four desired SDGs?

  1. Good health & well-being
  2. Decent work & economic growth
  3. Quality education
  4. Gender equality

In fact, “Good health & well-being” was No. 1 on every country’s list but South Africa, where it was only behind only “Decent work & economic growth.”

It is striking that employers have an outsized opportunity to impact three of those top four directly, and several pathways to helping increase access to quality education.

People—especially when considered as a workforce—should not be taken for granted as a sustainable resource. An unhealthy human (physically, mentally, or relationally) will either be unable to work or will be less productive. A person whose job is not helping them make progress, or who is falling further behind each month despite their income, will be less productive or quit to search for more gainful employment. If the current job is not educating for career progress, people will leave and find a situation that opens the opportunity for advancement. And, increasingly, if organizations fail to address inequities such as gender equality, they do so at the risk of losing the support of their employees, customers, and investors.

And yet, many organizations still look at their labor as a necessary commodity that delivers their product or service, instead of as an asset they can optimize through strategic investment. Financial and consulting firms have, for decades, celebrated a culture of 18-hour days and persistent, high-stress work environments. Americans have seen their rates of obesity and chronic conditions jump. Burnout, depression, and stress rates have never been higher. Financial wellness is in decline from an already bad place with costs like housing, health care, and education trapping most people in permanent debt.

As the value of dollars decreases, employers have new opportunities to think of compensation in terms of outcomes instead of just competitive pay and benefits. The Great Resignation demonstrates the unsustainable nature of the way employees are treated, and the chance to rethink the core components of compensation and very nature of what work means.  Businesses—through innovative and personalized compensation strategies and a reconstructed workday—have  the power to deliver outcomes more efficiently than people can access those same results on their own.

Of course, anything that is not profitable financially is not sustainable either. It just so happens that the business case for improving peoples’ outcomes is well-proven.  The current, product-based approach to improving employee wellness has failed, but the door is open for a new model.

Organizations that seize the opportunity to revolutionize the way they think about work and compensation and adopt new models will win the War for Talent and profit in the next decade and beyond. Those that do not will find that people are no more renewable than our rainforests.