By Mary Kay O’Neill, M.D., M.B.A.
Executive Medical Director for Regence BlueShield in Washington.
Employer-sponsored wellness programs have been gaining in popularity over the past decade, as more and more companies are investing in the health of their workforces. Currently, however, the value of these programs has been called into question.
A recent New York Times article cited a report conducted by the nonprofit RAND Corporation, proclaiming that wellness programs geared towards changing lifestyle behavior through approaches like weight loss and stress management don’t result in any net financial savings for employers.
This conclusion contradicts my own experience. Having worked directly with businesses to encourage healthy behaviors among their employees for the past 12 years, I have observed that wellness unequivocally results in better health for employees and an improved bottom line for employers.
I’ve had the good fortune to be able to work with hundreds of employers and employees to adopt healthier behavior, and this experience has yielded one absolute truth: the most successful wellness programs thrive because the organization promotes a holistic culture of healthy behavior. This requires buy-in from leaders who drive the company culture and truly walk the wellness walk.
One local example of the impact of workplace wellness is Regence. Through our parent company, we conducted a five-year realized study of our own in-house wellness program, and found that it ultimately yielded a return on investment (ROI) of $1.78 for every dollar spent. Savings Regence saw included $9.2 million in reduced medical and disability costs; a 26-percent reduction in disability claims; and 3.05 fewer hours per employee in unplanned absences.
Other studies, including one from Harvard University, have estimated ROI at $3.27 or more in reduced medical costs for every dollar spent. And more organizations, including ours, are shifting from participation-based programs to outcomes-based programs that more effectively incentivize changes in behavior with the goal of better health.
While reports like RAND’s cast skepticism on workplace wellness programs, I’d like to respectfully challenge employers to look beyond this recent headline. Talk to your colleagues about their experiences with wellness, and ask your employees if wellness-related benefits and activities are important to them. While not every benefit can be qualified in dollars and cents, I’m confident that the attractiveness and effectiveness of these programs can have a positive impact on your bottom line.