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Beating the Dead Horse of Wellness ROI

by Dean Witherspoon   Dean's profile on LinkedIn  

“This document was posted in error and has been withdrawn pending completion of contractual obligations to the project sponsor.”


It’s not surprising the RAND report saying, essentially, workplace wellness doesn’t work reached that conclusion. What is surprising is how swiftly it was pulled from their website — and then reposted, presumably after an outcry from conspiracy nuts.


It’s unlikely the report will have any significant impact on workplace wellness, particularly since the Affordable Care Act is set to swing into full gear in just 6 months. The law makes wellness participation almost mandatory, or alternatively, nonparticipation punitive. It’s unfortunate. The Act’s wellness provisions were sold on the idea of a positive ROI for workplace wellness — a notion that was wishful thinking or sloppy science at best and hucksterism at worst. You can read a summary of the RAND report here.


But the report as well as the ongoing back and forth about clinical and financial implications misses the mark: Workplace wellness should never have been about ROI in the first place. Yes, organizations need to manage healthcare expense and consider health and productivity as an asset, just as they do equipment and buildings. But unlike bricks and mortar, people are not static, interchangeable parts that fit a neat mathematical formula. Some organizations have done an admirable job of attempting to honestly measure the true financial impact of wellness. The average workplace, however, doesn’t come remotely close to having the resources to measure ROI with any degree of confidence. Nor should they.


Let’s Focus on What Matters

Wellness consulting agencies and some vendors have done the industry a huge disservice in the last 15 years by focusing on something they will never be able to prove. And for what? What other workplace benefit has subjected itself to such dollars and cents scrutiny? When was the last time you saw the ROI for pensions, childcare, vacations, paid family leave, adoption assistance, long-term care insurance, casual days, contraception benefits, legal assistance, sports team sponsorship, retiree medical, etc., etc., etc.?


The point is organizations make these investments because they think it’s good for business, yet in almost all instances they have no proof-positive financial justification. They offer these benefits because they think they’ll attract and retain the best employees to make their organization successful. And that’s the rationale we need again for workplace wellness.


We must reset our thinking to the idea that a well conceived, expertly executed wellness program adds to the quality of work life. It’s another reason employees love to come to work. It’s crucial to a culture that values people for their contributions as part of a community working toward the same objectives — recognizing that those workers are more than the sum of their salaries and healthcare expense.


To get to that state of mind, we need to refocus our wellness programs on greatness. What can we do to make our services so compelling that people want to be part of them and don't have to be bribed or browbeaten into participating? Here are some immediate steps to get you headed in the right direction:

  • Stop paying people to get well. We’ve written often about why this is a terrible idea (read our white paper, How Financial Incentives/Disincentives Undermine Wellness). The bottom line is it makes it harder to create a culture where people value health for health’s sake, and therefore more difficult to achieve lasting health improvement.
  • Do less, but be amazing at it. Scrap the checklist mentality reinforced by the “best practice” notion that says for a wellness program to be effective you need this, and this, and this. Figure out what you have the resources to do extremely well that will have the greatest impact, and bet the farm on it.
  • Highlight people, not statistics. Yeah, the VP of Really Important Stuff will want to know how many people participated, completed, etc. But if you want the VPRIS and her boss’s boss to be impressed with your results, tell the stories of people whose lives you’ve changed and the gratitude they feel toward the company because you have this amazing wellness program.
  • Have some fun. Geez, can we all just get back to enjoying what we do and the lives we touch? Isn’t that why you got into this field in the first place?

For more on what we think wellness should be about, watch for our upcoming white paper Winning at Wellness: Why Quality of Life Matters… and ROI Doesn’t.