Most people and businesses probably accept the logic that companies implementing wellness initiatives must be saving some money as a result. If employees lose weight, stop smoking, become more active, and have tools to detect and begin to manage potentially serious conditions at an earlier, more treatable stage — all of which can result from wellness program initiatives — it seems reasonable to assume that a company’s health care costs should be affected favorably. Yet, data on wellness initiatives’ return on investment (ROI) remains elusive, which can spell trouble for these programs when economic conditions call for justification of every dollar a department spends.
In times of scrutinized budgets and spending cutbacks, wellness programs that require little or no expense outlay, yet address either (or both) disease prevention or early detection — the dual focus of wellness initiatives — might be the best (or only) option for cash-strapped businesses. Here are some ways to bring wellness programs into the workplace without making a significant capital outlay:
- Use premium incentives and surcharges to motivate employees to engage in healthy behaviors or abandon unhealthy ones. For example, offer employees a credit they can use to offset their required health plan premium contribution in exchange for participating in a health risk appraisal, or charge a lower health plan premium contribution for nonsmokers than for smokers.
- Take advantage of wellness features that are included in your company’s health care plan and promote them as part of your wellness program. Consult with the health plan carrier to determine what offerings are available. Check to see if the carrier offers additional wellness-related services outside of your health plan and, if so, consider adding some of these to your plan. This might raise the health plan premium somewhat, but remember that employees will help to pay for the cost of the additional wellness efforts through their share of the premium payment.
- Look for free resources in the community that can be made available to employees as part of a wellness initiative. For example, a local health department might have individuals who could speak to employee groups on seasonal health issues, such as the flu or about resources the community makes available to residents, such as immunization clinics.
- Explore offerings that might be available through nonprofit organizations that focus on a specific disease. A Calendar of National Health Observances (available at www.healthfinder.gov/nho) lists contact information for hundreds of such organizations, and some of these might be sponsoring activities in your area with a wellness focus (for example, National HIV Testing Day, Melanoma/Skin Cancer Screening and Detection Month).
- Check to see whether hospitals in your area offer free blood pressure and/or cholesterol screenings.
- Try to develop partner-type relationships with local hospitals, clinics, and other organizations (for example, the YMCA) to make free or low-cost wellness activities available to employees.
According to the Alliance for Wellness ROI, an intercompany cooperative formed to standardize the terminology and measurement of wellness return on investment, published ROI resulting from wellness programs ranges from $1 to $20 for every dollar spent on wellness initiatives. Unfortunately, since this is such a dramatic range, questions arise as to what exactly is being measured. Arguably, measurement of wellness ROI should include not only reductions in health care costs, but also Workers Compensation cost savings, reduced absenteeism and disability, productivity gains, and improvements in employee morale and retention. However, until reliable measures of wellness ROI become standardized-enabling benefits departments to clearly justify program costs-no- and low-cost wellness opportunities are likely to be necessary staples of corporate wellness initiatives.