Placing Workplace Wellness in Proper Context: Value Beyond Money

By Nicolaas P. Pronk, PhD, MA

Most companies in the United States now offer some kind of wellness programming to their employees. In 2012, about half of US employers with at least 50 employees and more than 90% with more than 50,000 employees offered a workplace wellness program (1).

Employer surveys (eg, the 2011 Automatic Data Processing Survey) suggest that the most often-cited reasons for offering these programs include improved employee health, health care cost control, increased productivity, and absenteeism reduction. Each of these reasons is quantifiable, and their value can be monetized, allowing for a calculation of savings and an estimation of a return on investment (ROI).

Yet it isn’t necessarily always about saving money. Dr Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and chief executive officer of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, notes in a recent online post that companies committed to nurturing a culture of well-being consider broader motivations, including low turnover rates, attraction of top candidates, job satisfaction, and recruitment and retention of workers (2). Each factor was reported as being a more important driver of workplace wellness programs than ROI.

There is understandable interest in learning if, and how, workplace wellness programs produce results and generate savings. Publications on the effect of workplace wellness on financial outcomes continue to accumulate (1–5), but instead of producing consistency and clarity, they have introduced doubt and controversy. Systematic reviews and meta-analytic findings indicate that workplace wellness can generate savings (3). However, recent ROI studies indicate that such savings come only from disease management (DM) programs not lifestyle management (LM) programs (1). To gain clarity, 2 issues must be addressed. First, there is a need to standardize the definition of workplace wellness programs so that casual use of what constitutes such programs can be avoided. Second, research approaches should more explicitly recognize that workplace wellness programs generate a range of outcomes, many of them non–health related, that provide substantial value to employers even though they are often not represented in ROI analyses.

This essay addresses these 2 issues in the context of a set of best practice program-design principles that allow for properly designed workplace wellness programs to be differentiated from other activities that, although well-intended, may not rise to the level of a bona fide program.

Read the article.

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