Employee Wellness Programs: Are They Worth the Investment?

Corporate wellness programs are big business. Employee wellness programs have grown to a nearly 8 billion dollar industry in the United States. Big Money. But over the past few years, more and more critics are questioning whether they actually work. Do they really improve the health of employees? Do they really make employees more productive? Do they really reduce absenteeism? And the biggest question of all: Are they really worth the company’s financial investment?

The structure of an employee wellness program can vary greatly. Some simply offer annual flu shots and blood pressure screenings. Others provide gym memberships, stress management workshops and nutrition coaching in addition to the traditional health screenings. The advertised goal of these offerings is to positively impact the health of the employee. That seems obvious. What the REAL goal is, however, is for these offerings to have a positive change on the employee’s health and lifestyle BEHAVIORS, which is a whole other animal. Behavior change is hard. It takes time. Sometimes it takes a long time. You see where I am going with this…..simply put, it’s complicated.

In theory, companies that offer employee wellness programs will decrease their healthcare cost. In reality, because changing health and lifestyle behavior is so complicated, objective evidence to support a company’s return on investment (ROI) is hard to come by. Some wellness initiatives reduce costs short term but most indicators won’t emerge for years. And a lot of those indicators are difficult to measure. As a result, the debate to the question – “Are they really worth the investment?” continues…

As I sifted through the data to write this blog, something came to me. We are thinking about this all wrong. As a RDN, I am a believer in the importance of employee wellness programs. I also understand a company’s need to justify the financial investment. But what if we think about this whole thing differently? What if we think of the investment in terms of a company’s commitment to the well-being of their employees – the hard working, skilled, dedicated employees that they have spent A LOT of money recruiting and training?

The cost of employee turnover is all over the map. The Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) predicts that every time a business replaces a salaried employee, it costs them 6-9 months salary. It is expensive to recruit and train a new employee.

Wellness programs are doing some exciting things. The trend is to take on more of a well being approach. Programs are thinking beyond an employees’ physical health – offering nutrition counseling, encouraging physical activity during the workday, providing stress management and even financial management services. Some are even offering on site healthy lunch and snacking options. They are creating workplaces that provide social connectedness.  In essence, they are creating a work community and culture that values health and wellbeing.  That is awesome.

As a health professional, I am excited about the evolution of the worksite wellness industry. An effective wellness program should be tailored to the needs of the employees within a specific company. It must identify what employees want, what motivates them, what enlists them and what makes them happy while they are at work. Programs should be supportive and encouraging.  Companies that take care of each other will take care of business.

There is a lot of opportunity in the employee wellness industry. Opportunity for companies to invest in their employees’ well-being and improve retention, opportunity for employees to access programs that positively impact their health and lifestyle behaviors, and opportunity for health professionals to continue to educate and lead people to healthier, happier lives. Whether the ROI is in objective health measurements or decreased recruitment and training costs, the real ROI is a dedicated, qualified, committed employee who is well.

Sarah Marjoram, MS, RDN, LD

A Registered Dietitian supporting nutrition businesses with impactful content and marketing strategy.