There is a wellness revolution happening in corporate America. As the secret has gotten out that healthy employees are more productive and handle stress better, companies have been scrambling to put together wellness programs for their employees. It makes sense from a business perspective. Having healthy employees can increase profitability, sales, and morale. But are employee wellness programs actually improving the health of employees and companies?
We know that workplace wellness programs have endemically low participation rates (Grokker’s Deborah Holstein has some tips for solving that problem), but how are well attended wellness programs working out? Well, it depends.
Some employees and employers are seeing huge returns on workplace wellness programs. At MD Anderson Cancer Center, a worker’s compensation and injury care unit reduced sick days by 80% and ultimately reduced health insurance premiums by nearly 50%. Johnson & Johnson estimates that it has saved over $250 million in health care costs over a 10-year period, and another employer reported that 57% of participating employees classified as high-risk due to biological markers of poor health transitioned to a low-risk group in just 6 months.
Ultimately, a meta-analysis of successful workplace wellness programs estimates the total ROI at ~$3.50 per dollar spent, and that’s only when considering savings via sick days and reduced health insurance premiums. It doesn’t take into account the increased productivity of employees, the improved quality of their work, or the positive effects that these programs may have on employee retention and recruitment. Those benefits are more difficult to measure, but with increased emphasis on workplace wellness programs I anticipate that scientists and business leaders will attempt to quantify those benefits in the coming years.
Unfortunately, these impressive examples are the exception, not the rule. The truth is that despite their prevalence, most workplace wellness programs fail to meet their goals. Some programs shift health care costs to unhealthy employees, which I think we can agree isn’t helping employees at all. Randomized controlled studies have shown that most wellness programs have no measurable health benefits, and a meta-analysis of 600 workplace wellness programs turned up a paltry employer savings of $2.38 a month. This is bad news for the $6 billion corporate wellness industry.
In the face of these disappointing figures, what is a company to do? Although there is not a consensus on what a one-size fits all wellness program might look like, I’ll leave you with two key insights. Firstly, design a program that is tailored to the needs of your employees. Take the time to understand their health challenges and the types of resources they would find valuable (and would actually use). Secondly, foster a culture of wellness throughout your entire company. A company with management that has minimal regard for the wellness of its employees probably won’t be able to encourage employees to join and adhere to any type of wellness program.