Wellness Programs: Tell Us What You Think

Workplace wellness has become a $6 billion industry in the United States. After all, what company doesn't want to cut their health benefits bill? But do wellness programs actually save companies money? Our Square-Off panel had some polarizing views on the subject. Soeren Mattke says the RAND Wellness Programs Study, which included almost 600,000 employees at seven employers, showed that wellness programs are having little if any effect on health-care costs. Mattke, a RAND scientist, also say ..

Can wellness programs be cost-effective? It depends on what you value.

Let’s start with what everyone who can access the Internet can find out: there are quite a number of independent articles, analyses, and white papers that say wellness programs have a positive ROI. Most range in the $1.50 to $3.00 (per $1 invested) range. A lot of the papers say, “It depends on the program.” I believe that it depends on your faith in people.

Mike Tinney

Mike Tinney

The problem with firm predictive analytics is that based on results you make an investment to reduce the likelihood of a statistically possible (but not guaranteed) future occurrence. Depending upon which side of the line you fall on as it relates to statistical predictive models and how many lives your health plan covers, these models for your potential ROI may mean a lot to you, or they may mean very little.

If you’re paying $48,000 for a program that supports 1,000 people and one less person has a heart attack (statistically, you should have two heart attacks per year in a group of 1,000), the heart attack alone has an average cost of $38,501. The program essentially pays for itself with a single incidence. It’s common sense.

But the “common sense” argument is a bit of a leap of faith, in that you have to trust that some conditions that can be avoided by cleaner living and healthier activity will be avoided. You have to trust, because you’ll never actually see the “bullets” your people dodge as a result of a good program. You have to have a common sense rudder that being active and health-conscious is inherently the right thing to do for your employees. And if you have that basic faith, then independent ROI studies make a lot of sense and will be helpful.

A healthy employee uses fewer insurance dollars, is at work more often, and is more focused and productive than his or her unhealthy counterpart. And other than genetics (and bad cosmic luck), health is derived from our behaviors. Change a person’s behavior, change his or her health. Change a person’s health, change the frequency and quality of their output. As an employer that adds up, and you have a reason to care more about that from a financial point of view than do your employees (although they may still care for personal reasons).

We don’t typically hire based on fitness levels or capabilities. Healthy people don’t automatically make higher salaries than unhealthy people. Yet, the healthy version of any of us will be more productive and less burdensome to employ over time than the unhealthy version.

So the burden falls to you, employer. Financially speaking, an investment in good individual health most meaningfully benefits the entity that pays people for their time.

Mike Tinney is founder and CEO of Fitness Interactive Experience, a health and fitness platform used by companies like Coca-Cola, Methodist Health Systems, and Service Foods.

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3 responses to “Belief in Wellness Savings May Require Leap of Faith, but They’re Real”

  1. Hmm…not sure that telling CFOs to take a wellness ROI on faith is a good cultural fit. In any case, I’d recommend that CFOs read the wellness industry leaders’ full report, linkable from my essay paired with this one, in which these industry leaders admit that wellness has a negative ROI. May I ask you to address why 39 assembled self-proclaimed “subject matter experts” wrote a report “two years in the making” that comes to a conclusion which is the opposite of yours. In exchange, I’d be happy to address any question you have about my opposing essay.

    • Al, Great question. Let me clarify the point I was trying to make in my piece. I DO think it’s hard to prove ROI for a wellness program. I think there are a lot of independent pieces that offer one, each easily found with a google search. My point though was, you can find “something” online to support whatever point you’re trying to validate these days. The real question I think anyone considering a wellness program should answer is “do you think you will have better/ more effective employees if they are healthier?” If that answer is yes, then the followup is “is it in your best interest to help them accomplish that?” That’s what I meant by leap of faith. I respect that your opinion and mileage may vary. Hope this helps to clarify my intent and just to get out ahead, I’m not a fan of internet debates so I won’t make a good sparring partner 🙂

  2. “…there are quite a number of independent articles, analyses, and white papers that say wellness programs have a positive ROI.” Can you please provide three citations that don’t come from any professional, organization, or business that has an interest in promoting the poke-prod-pry-punish workplace wellness programs in which we should all believe?

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