Wellness ROI is an elusive number C-suite executives often demand but that benefits professionals scramble to find. But ROI aside, employers are shelling out money on incentive programs that could be better invested, one expert says.

In the last year, only 50% of employees participated in a well-being activity or health management-related program, according to data from Towers Watson’s Staying@Work Survey, released today. And on average, employers offer their employees $880 through a range of annual incentives, but employees collect only $365. In addition, nearly half (46%) of employees said they don’t want their employers to have access to their personal health information, in part due to privacy concerns, and close to one-third (30%) don’t trust their employers to be involved in their health and well-being.

Also see:10 reasons employees hate wellness programs.

“Employers recognize that employees are leaving a lot of money on the table,” said Steven Nyce, senior economist at Towers Watson. “The good news is, employers are doubling down on their commitment to build a culture of health and improve the employee experience through technology and personalized communication. They can also be heartened by the progress some employers are making.”

Echoing Nyce’s thoughts, Shelly Wolff, senior health care consultant at Towers Watson says shifting the focus from paying employees to supporting people at the worksite can make a bigger impact and may even cost less in the long run.

“Creating a culture that values health and changes like incorporating walking/standing meetings, providing healthy foods and pushing employees to be physically active in a sedentary role … all of those things at the workplace are probably more important than spending $900, and you’d probably get more return on that,” she says.

Also see:Connecting the wellness dots.

Shifting focus from paying people to supporting people at the worksite and looking at the cultural message that you’re sending will cost less and probably give you more in return, she adds.

 “We know we have work to do,” she says. “Expanding our well-being definition to think more carefully about what can be done at the worksite is an opportunity for employers.”

Seventy-one percent of employees surveyed said they prefer to manage their own health, and nearly one-third (32%) said the initiatives offered by their employers don’t meet their needs.

Wolff points to a number of changes that is influencing this evolution, including sudden and expansive changes in technology and new expectations from employees.

Also see:LL Bean, Prudential share 3 tips for wellness success.

“We’re seeing a shift on the focus to be what we thing about as more local, personal and ultimately adding more employee value.” She advises employers to make it easy, keep plans simple and location specific.

“Employers may find the key to making better progress hinges on looking at these programs through an employee’s eyes,” she says.

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