The Health Care ROI Debate: Do I Really Need to Sell You on Wellness?

From the HR blog on TLNT: workplace wellness
From the HR blog on TLNT: workplace wellness. Photo illustration by Dreamstime.

I frequently interview non-client companies to hear what they’re doing to build health-supporting cultures. One question I always ask is: what’s your ROI?

When I interviewed Hollie Delaney from, Inc. about their approach to employee wellness, she told me they’re interested in their employees’ happiness; they believe when you feel better, you work better. When I asked how they measured this, she said they haven’t quite figured out how to measure happiness. Plus, their company isn’t purely a metrics-driven company.

Aren’t they the lucky ones? Most companies must prove the ROI before they get crackin’ on design and implementation, particularly when it comes to wellness, a topic that many still find squishy.

On last week’s HR Happy Hour radio show titled “Wrestling with Wellness,” I shared several studies that found that yes, wellness does work. It has both hard dollar and soft dollar ROI, and, staggering business and social reasons as driving forces. Then Greg and I shared our opinion that even with these studies, there’s room for doubt. My wellness effort is not your wellness effort, and as with all studies, people question the methodology and the findings.

Why the ROI on wellness should be clear

We could go around and around on this topic. So, let me pose something: if you need to do battle to prove why you should invest in your employees’ and their families’ health, perhaps your organization’s not ready — or willing. Putting aside these studies and employees themselves saying they’d be more productive with greater wellness investment, isn’t the ROI clear to anyone who reflects on whether:

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  • They personally have more energy when they eat well and exercise regularly.
  • Their body aches less and their mind is sharper when they get up and move instead of sitting on their bums all day.
  • Their self-image and attitude improve with each small, healthy change.
  • They feel in control when they can understand how to live with or reduce any health risk.
  • They feel less stress when they know their finances are sound.
  • They’re less distracted when they have help for any personal or family issue.
  • They sleep better and are more productive when all of the above is in place.
  • They give more at work when work gives more to them.

I’m not suggesting we give up on measurement. I’m simply pointing out that sometimes, all the evidence we need is staring us right in the face.

TLNT contributor Fran Melmed frequently writes about wellness and health care on her Free-Range Communication blog.


4 Comments on “The Health Care ROI Debate: Do I Really Need to Sell You on Wellness?

  1. Fran,

    I think the wellness programs that suck are the ones that that reward and “convince” employees to be healthy.

    I’d rather see companies provide structures that allow for a healthy lifestyle than host “Biggest Loser” contests and things like that.

    I agree about the ROI: We do plenty of things (including social media) that have a nearly impossible to quantify ROI.

    – Chris

    1. chris,

      you’ll find this interesting, i think. i just came from the e-patient 2010 conference, where we heard from many providers and innovators about making strategies and techniques more persistent, pulling people in the direction we want them to go and using games and rewards to help change behavior.

      consumer sites and products are tapping into the idea of rewarding people. at epatient, we heard from a new company called switch2health that connects a wristband activity monitor with a rewards program to get people to move more. other companies, like healthywage, also connect rewards and goals. and then others look at the idea of loss aversion — our hating to lose something we have more than gaining something new. stikk is one example of that.

      like you said, there’s a need for changing our environment and making doing the healthy thing the easy thing, the desired thing. i’d LOVE to see companies change the way we work and the way they’re physically structured and the food they provide and how easy they make it to bike to work…and…..i’d LOVE to see all of us do all that we know we’re supposed to do to be healthy. fact is, it’s going to be hard to get any of that to happen, and that’s why i’m OK with rewards. especially if rewards get someone to do something long enough to cement that change and make it permanent, reward or no.



      1. Fran,

        I think the gap for me is that statistically, rewards DON’T usually create long-term behaviors. They encourage people to be healthy in the short-term, and when the reward period ends, they go back to their old habits.

        The motivation to stay healthy, I think, has to come from within, and needs to be supported by systems and structures.

        That means healthy foods in the cafeteria, the flexibility (and cultural acceptance) to exercise during the workday, and work environments that don’t include overly large amounts of the bad stress (some stress is actually healthy).

        So in short, I don’t think rewards actually change long-term behavior all that often… especially once they reward period ends (channeling Dan Pink here).


        1. you’re right that personal motivation is critical, and even then change often hits bumps. that’s why removing barriers and making it easy to make the right choice (sometimes because it’s the only choice) is important. new studies are also showing that making the undesirable choice (unhealthy foods, using plastic bags) more expensive than the desirable choice can work. or even more recently, prescribed, as in those health care providers who are prescribing vegetables at food markets.

          lots of experiments. lots to learn. i hope companies jump in.


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