Wellness programs have been under the microscope for years. Dozens of research studies, corporate lawsuits, and case studies later, experts still can’t agree on whether these programs are helping Americans’ health. The million-dollar question: Do wellness programs lower healthcare costs? While plan sponsors stall and dissect the answer, a trillion dollar question is magnifying before our eyes: what is the cost of “unwellness” in the workplace?

The answer: $2.2 trillion per year, according to a new report by the Global Wellness Institute.

Here’s how that number breaks down:

$550 billion in lost productivity as a result of disengaged workers

+$1.1 billion for workers with chronic disease

+$250 billion in work-related injuries and illnesses

+$300 billion in work-related stress

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=$2.2 trillion (price tag for unwellness in the workplace)

If these numbers seem too big to be true, just look at the two most prevalent chronic conditions Americans struggle with: heart disease and diabetes.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Foundation, heart disease bills add up to more than $320 billion in annual healthcare costs and lost productivity. A recent report by HealthMine found that 51% of those with heart problems say their condition lowers their productivity at work, and 46% have lost measurable work days due to their illness.

Meanwhile diabetes and pre-diabetes are costing Americans another $322 billion in medical bills and lost productivity, according to the American Diabetes Association. Forty-eight percent of insured consumers with diabetes or pre-diabetes report they have lost work time in the past year, and 52% say that their condition has lowered their productivity while at work, according to HealthMine data.

The toll goes up as you add in arthritis, cancer, mental illness, and other common chronic conditions. And many of these conditions are largely preventable with lifestyle changes. But consumers can’t change what they don’t know. More troubling than the known cost of these conditions is the lack of knowledge consumers have to battle them. More than half (53%) of U.S. adults with a heart condition do not know their own cholesterol level and one-quarter don’t know their blood pressure. It’s not surprising that 39% of people with cardiovascular disease report difficulty managing with their illness, and 46% of those individuals say that knowing the right actions to take is the most difficult aspect.

What’s more, the CDC finds that one out of four people with diabetes don’t know they have it, while HealthMine data show 22% of those who do have it don’t know their own blood-glucose level. Alarmingly, 73% of diabetic patients report difficulty coping with their illness, according to the HealthMine data, and another 66% feel their diabetes is not completely under control.

As critics continue to put wellness programs in control groups, Americans aren’t getting any healthier or smarter about their own health status. They need a catalyst to put them in front of their health – understanding and managing it to prevent sickness, rather than treating it after the fact.

The wellness industry is in a nascent stage. It will continue to improve as a stimulus to improve health and lower costs. The transformation has already begun because wellness programs are providing essential insight into health knowledge that Americans have been lacking. For example, 43% of heart disease patients enrolled in a wellness program say their program discovered their condition. Plus, wellness programs can make a measurable difference through disease management: 79% of heart patients in wellness plans said their program helps them manage their healthcare costs. Forty-two percent stated their wellness program helps them manage their healthcare costs a lot.

As we look for formulas to address the enormous cost burden of unwellness in the workplace, let’s discover where wellness programs are falling short, and where they are paying dividends. Successful plan sponsors are inserting the right variables into the wellness beaker: 1) real clinical data to identify health status, 2) meaningful recommendations to inform healthy actions, and 3) deeply motivating, personalized incentives and rewards – so consumers know what’s in it for them.

If you are paying the tab for healthcare as an employer, your employees must engage in their own health. The stakes for both you and them are high and going higher.

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Bryce Williams

Bryce Williams

Bryce Williams is CEO and president at HealthMine.