Health and Wellness programs are less important, and effective, than you may have thought
Many companies have a health and wellness program as a cornerstone of their strategy to lower net healthcare costs and increasing employee health and productivity. They believe, understandably, that the upfront costs of such programs are greatly outweighed by the health prevention benefits they bring. Are they right?
The details are complicated, but the answer is not: Overwhelmingly, wellness programs are money pits rather than money-savers. That, and they are ineffective. That’s big news for a lot of HR departments and CEOs/CFOs who sign off on program implementation in hopes that it will cut costs and improve employee health in the long run.
Costs vs. Benefits
Workplace wellness programs typically cost employers:
- $100-150 per employee per year for administration;
- $100-150 per employee per year for employee incentives to encourage usage;
- Lost work time to participate in screening programs and complete health risk assessments; and
- Administrative time to ensure compliance with relevant laws and regulations.
These costs stack on top of one another and are not trivial. Summed together, the price tag you pay is far greater than the vendor fees would suggest.
Benefits rarely outweigh the costs of a conventional wellness program. Even the wellness industry knows this. The industry trade association’s own guidebook demonstrates that workplace wellness programs don’t generate positive ROI. And some articles and analyses conclude that upwards of 90-95% of wellness programs have no impact, and actually may make things worse by constantly harassing employees and “finding” health problems that don’t really exist.
If any of this is getting you to question your decision to embark on a wellness program, we’re glad. And none of this means you can’t invest in your employees’ health and well-being; it just necessitates you do so carefully and wisely.
Start By Minimizing Costs
Not letting costs spiral out of control will prop up your benefit-to-cost ratio. Scrutinize every bit of monetary investment you put into your wellness program. Evaluate it by asking, “How does this create value? What basis do I have to believe it will give me a positive ROI?”
Let’s look at a classic example: Fitness trackers.
Companies shell out sizeable sums of money on purchasing gadgets like wearable fitness trackers for their employees, yet don’t ensure such an investment is backed by anything substantive and useful. How will employee fitness data be collected, and what will it be used for? What incentives do employees have to make proper use of them? Will it really enhance employee wellness?
The point is this: Any and all financial inputs into a wellness program must be warranted by the rationalized belief that it will be worth it. If there is no reason to believe it will give a positive ROI, slash it from the program plan. You’re operating with limited resources.
Always Incentivize the Right Behaviors
What are you incentivizing in your wellness program? This question is key because targeting and altering human behavior is a tricky task with no shortcuts. Giving employees an incentive to complete a health risk assessment, for instance, does nothing to actually improve their health. It does not support healthy habit development or get employees engaged with their long-term health goals.
What might? Suppose you were to incentivize gym membership by sponsoring it for your employees. That would encourage healthy habits, but as anyone who’s embarked on a new gym affair can tell you, it rarely lasts. Think through that. Merely sponsoring a gym membership is unlikely to keep employees engaged long enough for them to meet medium-long term goals. Commitment is hard. Finding time to exercise is difficult. For people to take free gym access seriously, they’re going to need incentives that revolve around how they use that gym membership. Make benchmarks for employees frequenting the gym and reward them for demonstrating activity and making progress.
Use Positive Reinforcement Rather Than Negative Incentives
From the onset of rolling out a wellness program, employees are already skeptical of the idea that they have one more thing to deal with on a day-to-day basis. Your job as an employer is to make sure that healthy skepticism doesn’t devolve into dissatisfaction.
That’s why invasive, punitive, mandatory wellness programs don’t work. If you fail to frame your wellness program in a positive light, then employee morale will fall instead of rise (the opposite of what the program intended to accomplish in the first place). Program participants must get the impression that it is working for their benefit, not only for the company’s.
Part of conveying that impression is not punishing employees for failing to meet targets or comply with wellness guidelines. An article in the Harvard Business Review sampled 10 organizations whose wellness programs have achieved measurable results, finding they “favor[ed] positive incentives because employees lose trust when they feel they’re being forced to act against their wishes.” An employer who mandates a smoke-free workplace, or issues punishments for failing to get to the gym frequently enough, for instance, will usually encourage employees to push their behavior underground or subvert the program. That doesn’t help anyone.
Use carrots instead of sticks. Offer employees incremental rewards for positive performance in the wellness program, like a discount on their medical insurance, or gift cards to a healthy eatery or local shop. These positive incentives will frame the wellness program constructively in the minds of your employees and will encourage them to actively participate in the investment your company has made.
Don’t Skip Out on Healthcare Education
We’ll spare you the statistics on just how uneducated most employees are when it comes to their health and healthcare. That knowledge gap has obvious consequences on the wellness of your employees. Such a gap should be bridged.
Advise your HR department to incorporate a focus on improving healthcare education in your wellness program. It is an obvious area for real improvement that, handily, does not have large costs associated with it. Basic education can go a long way to improving the ROI of other wellness program areas.
In keeping with the earlier theme, however, avoid being heavy-handed with the educational efforts. Employees should feel like the gains in literacy are not outweighed by the drudgery of workshops, meetings, and lectures. To that end, be purposeful in what types of education campaigns HR includes. Don’t include too many or make them too complicated or lengthy.
Wellness programs are often misunderstood and mishandled to disastrous ends. They can quickly become a drain on financial and time resources if not designed and maintained properly. That makes creating an effective wellness program is a top priority.
Worried your wellness program isn’t all it could be? Give us a shout. With Wincline as your guide, we can develop a program together that truly works for your company, its employees, and your future.
 “Are Workplace Wellness Programs Hazardous To Your Health?” in CEO’s Guide to Restoring the American Dream, (2017), Dave Chase, at 86. Freely available at: https://www.wincline.com/health-rosetta-ebook
 Ibid, at 87.
 Berry, Leonard, Mirabito, Ann, and Baun, William, “What’s the Hard Return on Employee Wellness Programs?” Harvard Business Review, December 2010 Issue. Available at: https://hbr.org/2010/12/whats-the-hard-return-on-employee-wellness-programs