When It Comes to Corporate Wellness, Real ROI Stems From Behavioral Changes

July 22, 2015

This article was originally published in Business2Community.

Ask any office worker who’s suddenly become tethered to her Fitbit, and she’ll tell you that corporate wellness programs are all the rage right now.

According to a recent survey, 79 percent of employers now offer some type of health improvement program, and companies are expected to spend an average of $693 per employee this year on services ranging from flu shots to fitness classes.

But according to the American Heart Association, corporate wellness programs aren’t doing much to improve people’s health, and a recent report by the RAND Corporation found that these programs are having little impact on the amount of money employers spend on healthcare.

Does that mean that wellness programs simply aren’t worth the investment? Not at all. It just means it’s time for corporate wellness to undergo a public health renaissance.

Evidence-Based Approaches Produce Results

Before we launched our company, I had the opportunity to lead large population behavior change initiatives in New York City. Our objective was to improve the developmental and health-related outcomes of families in distressed communities, and we did so by building a strong support network within their immediate environment. The programs measurably improved the health and lifestyles of thousands of people.

This is a prime example of how the public health sector approaches problems: It does consider internal elements, such as cognitive factors, genetic predisposition to disease, and subjects’ family health history, but it also focuses on how people’s external environment and social influences affect their behavior.

The federal government and the public health sector together have measured thousands of population health programs to assess whether they reliably improve health behavior over time. The fact is that across thousands of programs around the country, only a handful of them are rated “evidence-based,” meaning they have achieved reliable, long-term health behavior change results. These types of public health programs have made astonishing progress over the past few years. Yet the corporate wellness sector has not brought these approaches to its employee populations. It still focuses far too much on achieving short-term engagement rate spikes, rather than driving long-term habit change.

Participation Is Important, But Behavior Drives Success

Today, many corporate wellness vendors create rewards programs with the idea that the more people who take part in a program, the more successful it will be. But participation isn’t an accurate way to measure a program’s effectiveness. It may be a great indicator of being on the right track, but behavioral changes are much more meaningful.

The American Heart Association’s recent stance supports this idea. The association is launching its own science-based criteria to measure the effectiveness of corporate wellness programs, with a focus on measuring behaviors that reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. This approach is similar to the one found in the public health sector, where measurable behavior change is the ROI of focus.

Behavioral change wellness programs do exist, and they’re growing in number. To make sure that you’ve found one that is evidence-based, here are the questions you should ask of vendors and your own internal team:

  1. How do you measure success?

    If the company talks about engagement as the only measure worth considering, that’s an automatic red flag.

  2. What is the scientific basis for the program?

    Was it inspired by a proven method or used in the public health or social sciences sectors? Where’s the evidence?

  3. How do you plan to get employees involved?

    Participation may not be an accurate measure of a program’s success, but it’s still a vital component of any health initiative. A focus on intrinsic motivation is a great place to start.

When choosing a wellness program, beware of those that rely primarily on financial incentives or try to force participation. People don’t like being told what to do — especially when it comes to their health.

As an industry, corporate wellness is still in its infancy. Many companies are moving in the right direction by asking the right questions, but few have successfully implemented evidence-based programs that reliably improve employees’ health behaviors.

That isn’t to say that you should write off wellness programs, but it does mean that you should view your options with the same scrutiny you’d use for any other business decision. Look for a vendor with a method that’s proven to perform to improve the health of your employees and your bottom line.

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