For years, HR and benefit practitioners have been in hot pursuit of an elusive measure: credible returns on investment in traditional workplace wellness programs. But at least one industry leader is pegging ROI to a broader strategic approach and, in the process, earning kudos from a staunch industry critic of conventional practices.

The Limeade Institute offers an evidence-driven, holistic approach for measuring the results of wellbeing and engagement programs. Metrics are examined in aggregate form in five areas. They include programs, habits, wellbeing, people and business results.

“The connection of employee engagement to business performance is perhaps the most researched topic in organizational science,” says Henry Albrecht, CEO of Limeade, an employee engagement company founded 11 years ago.

What’s worth noting, he adds, is that the ROI associated with a wellness program and high wellbeing workforce are two very different things. That means employee engagement isn’t the same as health engagement. Albrecht believes brokers and advisers need to understand these distinctions when crafting strategies for their employer clients and think beyond benefits to help elevate C-suite discussions.

Also, he sees a positive correlation between wellbeing and higher employee engagement and lower turnover. “That’s a good start if you’re looking for results,” he says, also noting the importance of phasing out irrelevant or punitive wellness programs.

The focus shifts from providing programs that promise immediate financial returns, usually in the form of claims cost reductions, to achieving more lasting results. In short: an emphasis on “the science and tools to understand what people factors are most statistically connected to better business results,” according to Albrecht. “Then, we give them levers to pull to influence these factors. Some of those show up in software. Some don’t.”

The true value of a wellness program isn’t so much about managing risk categories and reducing costs as it is improving wellbeing and tethering employee engagement to business results, adds Laura Hamill, Ph.D., chief people officer at Limeade and managing director of the Limeade Institute. Her team includes researchers with doctorates in organizational psychology, cognitive neuroscientists, psychometricians, business insight experts and data scientists — all of whom work across HR silos.

An organizational psychologist by training, she says the company’s model “allows us to have a much more strategic conversation” by showing a deeper breadth of results. The mission is to transcend traditional wellness program designs for a holistic view of individual wellbeing whose focus is on quality outcomes, safety and similar measures.

Reaching skeptics

A dashboard approach allows Limeade customers to parse employee participation, engagement, satisfaction, turnover and achievement data at an aggregate level that can be tied to business results. For example, a large restaurant chain examined the relationship between wellbeing and sales. Limeade’s dashboard team is developing a template to make its data mining more scalable.

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Program measures include participation, goal achievement and user satisfaction, while behavior change is observed across a comprehensive spectrum that encompasses mind, body, work and social habits. That same approach applies to measuring wellbeing based on an initial assessment and other data examining emotional, work, physical and financial factors. People results include employee engagement, performance, turnover and cost metrics, while business results include sales, profit and customer satisfaction metrics.

Although the application of this model is clearly employee wellbeing, it could be expanded to accommodate other initiatives.

“While we originally developed the model as way to prove value of a Limeade program, it’s relevant for any employee program,” according to Hamill. “We want to help all HR and C-suite leaders demonstrate the larger business value of company-supported employee programs. We’re hoping that a guide like this will advance how the industry measures and takes action — elevating the discussion and ultimately, changing how companies invest in their people.”

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