I've written previously about wellness and health management, but since it's a topic that comes up in virtually every client planning meeting I have these days, it seems worth revisiting. The biggest challenge facing HR professionals looking to devote resources to wellness initiatives at their workplaces is responding to the question, "What's the ROI?"

It seems intuitive that if you create a healthier workforce, your cost for health insurance should go down. But intuition only goes so far these days when it comes to expending corporate resources, and quantifying ROI continues to be a somewhat elusive target.

Sure, there is lots of evidence to support the notion that health management programs do pay off. Mercer's National Survey of Employer-Sponsored Health Plans has found that employers that demonstrate a greater commitment to wellness and health management experience annual cost increases that are two percentage points lower, on average, than those of other employers. But, as compelling as that data is, it still doesn't constitute scientific proof.

A recent study published in the American Journal of Health Promotion did provide some hard data on the ROI of a "comprehensive" health and productivity management program. Start-up costs led to negative ROI for the first year, but strong ROI in years two and three produced a combined 2.45:1 ROI for all three program years of the study.

The study represented the results of more than 20,000 program participants each year and identified the following components for what researchers considered a "comprehensive" program: comprehensive program design, management support, integrated incentives, comprehensive communications, dedicated onsite staff, multiple program modalities, health awareness programs, biometric health screenings and vendor integration.

Whew! Clearly, it benefited from the law of large numbers - when you have 20,000 participants, virtually any health management program you install is going to benefit somebody. But not every company has that luxury or the resources to incorporate every single aspect of a comprehensive program as outlined above.

Does that mean you shouldn't even start down that road? No, absolutely not. Wellness and health management programs can be scaled to fit the needs of companies of almost any size, as long as you have the data to help identify what the needs are. But even without a lot of data or a lot of money to spend, a walking program, a healthy eating campaign or a "know your numbers" program will not only heighten awareness of health issues, it will also send employees a message that their employer's concern for them extends beyond what's included in their job description.

A healthier, more engaged workforce should be a more productive workforce, and everyone benefits from that.

Many clients may think that all this wellness stuff is a bunch of "hooey;" but with health costs continuing to escalate faster than wages, and employees' increasing difficulty to afford cost shifts, savvy advisers will be prepared to discuss the many advantages of a well-designed health management program.

Reach Mercer's Lane at george.lane@mercer.com.




Comments from the BeAdvised blog

Posted by: Gary K.

Let's be honest with ourselves, until we make each person responsible for their health, we will never reduce health care costs. Wellness programs and health coaching [are] the only way it is going to get done. Consumers need to be educated on how to take control of their health. Our medical profession will never become a part of wellness - wellness makes sense, but it does not make MONEY. In my opinion, doctors do not scare the heck out of people like they should who have lifestyle-created health conditions.


Posted by: D. LeBron

Certainly while an ROI approach to measuring wellness is not ideal, it is the most pragmatic from the viewpoint of an actual trigger.


Posted by: Jack W. Bruce

The key phrase in this blog is, "A healthier, more engaged workforce should be a more productive workforce, and everyone benefits from that." Wellness should not be defined simply as the lack of disease. Wellness leads to engagement and productivity. Healthy employees have a greater chance of providing both.


Posted by: Sinner

It should not (or maybe cannot) be measured as ROI! The cost-benefit model is much more appropriate! When do we realize one of the major problems is [that] health care does not fit the capitalistic model?

Register or login for access to this item and much more

All Employee Benefit Adviser content is archived after seven days.

Community members receive:
  • All recent and archived articles
  • Conference offers and updates
  • A full menu of enewsletter options
  • Web seminars, white papers, ebooks

Don't have an account? Register for Free Unlimited Access