As a wellness consultant, one of the questions I get most often is “Wow! I love what you do! This is so important, and so needed in today’s world! What kind of return on investment can a company expect for its wellness initiatives?”
Up until last week, although compelling evidence was already available, I had to agree that “more research is needed” before we can be fully confident that wellness in the workplace pays off as much in numerical terms as it does in human terms.
But not anymore. The Psychologically Healthy Workplace Conference held in Washington, DC last weekend gave everyone concrete and reliable evidence to make the topic a priority. Organized by chair David Ballard, Psy.D., MBA, the conference showed that creating a psychologically healthy workplace means more than promoting good health; it means enhancing both employee and organizational performance. Indeed, organizations that provide employees with resources to adopt healthy lifestyles achieve lower health care costs, higher productivity and healthier bottom lines.
Health and Productivity
In the pre-conference session, Nico Pronk, Ph.D., FACSM presented on how a work site health promotion program can provide practical applications based on existing research, and also be the basis for new research questions and results. As the Vice-President of Journey Well, he has applied this model and found that there is an explicit connection between worker health and business performance. More precisely:
- 4 behaviors cause nearly 40% of all deaths in the US: tobacco use, poor diet, physical inactivity and alcohol use.
- The single greatest opportunity to improve health lies in personal behavioral patterns (as opposed to social or environmental circumstances)
- The cost of productivity loss (including absenteeism and presenteeism) for employees who have poor diets, are physically inactive, smoke and overuse alcohol is about 5 times higher than that of employees who adopt the reverse, healthier habits.
- The difference in annual health care costs between lean (BMI of 25 or less) never-smoker, physically active employees versus overweight (BMI of 27.5 or higher), smoking, physically-inactive employees is 49%.
Engagement and Productivity
Benjamin Schneider, Ph.D., then entertained the crowd with a presentation linking employee engagement and organizational financial success. He started his argument by exploring how engaged workers are more active than employees who are merely satisfied. While the satisfied employees are happy about and focus on what they get out of the job, the engaged crew’s happiness takes root in what they contribute to their work environment.
The greater focus, persistence, proactivity, enthusiasm and adaptability of the engaged employees leads to significant financial consequences. A 2005 study of 96 companies showed that firms whose score was in the top 25% for engagement enjoyed returns on assets (ROA) 12% higher and profitability 11% higher than firms that scored in the bottom 25% on engagement.
For those of you who now wonder how to foster engagement, Schneider warns that building trust is an essential first step. Your efforts are doomed to failu if your workers feel that all you want is more work for the same pay. On the other hand, if jobs are redesigned to demand and develop more skills and abilities, to challenge workers and provide meaningfulness, and if the effort is based on effective teamwork, cooperation and feedback, the initiative is indeed promising.
Getting the Ball Rolling
It is one thing to recognize that wellness is a sound business strategy, it is quite another to have a sound strategy to go about it! Michelle James, MBA of Intel and Fran Melmed, MEd of Context Communication Consulting joined forces to explain how to properly reach employees with our wellness efforts.
Their advice? Avoid making it a perfect pretty picture where everyone is expected to fit the same mold. These are real people we are working with. For smaller organizations, see where the employees truly are, understand what factors in the decisions they need to make, and provide support along the way. For larger businesses where individual attention is impossible, think of building multiple mechanisms so employees can experiment and find what works best for them. Chat rooms on the intranet, newsletters, webinars and podcasts are all ways to reach your employees, and help them find support within the organization.
Melmed also cited a recent meta-analysis of the literature on costs and savings associated with workplace wellness programs. The Harvard researchers who led this study found that medical costs fall by about $3.27 for every dollar spent on wellness programs and that absenteeism costs fall by about $2.73 per dollar invested. Employees in healthy workplaces miss on average 1.8 fewer days of work each year. If you have 100 employees, 1.8 fewer sick days per employee translates to 180 extra workdays per year, or the equivalent of 36 weeks of work! Few investments will ever give you that kind of return!
Good Place to Be!
The PHWPC Day 1 closed on a friendly reception where participants were able to mingle with the day’s speakers and other practitioners. I personally enjoyed meaningful conversations and collaboration opportunities. Corporate wellness is a good place to be in 2010, and for anyone seriously interested in the topic, the PHWP is truly a good place to get started!
More reports from Day 2 of the conference tomorrow…
Images courtesy of the author.