Are You Getting the Optimal ROI on Your Wellness Plan? Checklist For You (Part 1)

This is part 1 of a 2-part article on Wellness Program ROI. Read Part 2.

85% of companies with 1000+ employees have wellness programs, mostly driven by an effort to contain healthcare costs and costs associated with lost productivity, absenteeism, and disengagement. However, a noted shortcoming, even of the most successful wellness programs, is adoption and consistent, long-term participation.

The average ROI for these programs is 6:1

3.27 ROI for medical costs and 2.73 on reduced absenteeism.

Doesn’t even take into account productivity and engagement that can be a tertiary benefit of wellness, nor further impacts on workplace safety, talent acquisition and retention, morale and community, also known as value on investment (VOI).

This is increasing all the time with better data and additional breakthroughs in

Below are components of successful wellness programs. Check how many you have:

  • Strong awareness and education, which usually requires heavily utilized internal communication channels
  • Cultures, policies, and environments that are consistent with wellness behaviors
  • Baseline evaluations tracking system, and regular progress assessments
  • Amenities on site, not just for fitness, but also meditation and hygiene
  • Group accountability and support without social pressure to engage
  • Reward-based vs. punitive incentivization, possibly even gamification
  • They have a dedicated administrator
  • Offer a variety of fitness and nutrition management options
  • Bottom line benefits are a byproduct, not the intention; the wellbeing of its people is the intention
  • It addresses the true keys to behavior change (habits and beliefs) and addresses the real reasons why people fall out, which can be a multitude of things, like life events, shame, and lack of desired or expected results
  • Holistic and integrative wellness that addresses all facets of wellbeing (Get our report, How Mindfulness Training Quickly Transforms Organizations here.)
    • Social
    • Emotional
    • Physical
    • Financial
    • Mental

Common reasons why wellness plans fall short of projected and/or optimal ROI include:

Lack of Awareness

On average, only 60% of employees are aware that their company has a wellness program.  It takes a concentrated and dedicated campaign to ensure that all employees are aware. It means that employees have to be reminded ongoingly. Managers also need to be trained and, often, policies adjusted.

This also aligns with the point that wellness programs need a dedicated leader and team, depending on the size of the organization, which adds expenses yet improves ROI, like any good investment. Many companies have appointed someone to lead wellness programs who still have to deliver on their primary role duties that are not wellness-related, like a Benefits Manager.

The effort has to be rolled out in collaboration with legal, marketing, human resources, finance, training and development, and potentially (ideally) vendors, coaches, and consultants. A wellness program leader needs ample time to communicate thoughtfully, as well as to assess status and progress thoroughly.  This leader also needs to be trusted and influential to coordinate all of the cultural, logistical and policy-based adjustments that may have to be made, as you’ll read below.

Also, if your employees have to report progress to someone who is a stakeholder in their performance, they may not feel safe being candid when a personal issue is interfering with wellness goals (and work.)

Low Participation

On average, 24% of employees participate and the ones most likely to participate already have active, healthy lifestyles. As organizations often find, inspiring people to voluntarily make hard changes is quite the challenge. Humans have a built-in survival-based resistance to change. Also, there’s no one silver bullet way to get a large population of people to want to change because we all have different drivers.

Few wellness programs include personalized coaching equipped not just to educate participants on the pragmatic steps of becoming healthier, but also to help each individual prospective participant identify what will inspire them to make and sustain changes in their behavior and lifestyle. Take into account all of the different REAL reasons why people veer off of wellness journeys and the real things that have been proven to augment physical health efforts.

Many learning and fitness programs have incorporated community due to the observation and a 2007 Harvard study that found that obesity is “contagious.” There is a belief, which seems to be supported by science, that people tend to be a product of the people with whom they surround themselves.

However, there are a lot of complex social intricacies that happen when one person tries to effectuate change in his or her own life. It can cause emotional, sometimes subconscious, negative reactions among a person’s social circle, including the social circle at work. Even when an individual makes a completely independent decision to change there can be social repercussions. Even when encouragement and peer pressure are absent, there can be adverse emotions. Encouragement is often perceived as pressure or shaming, even when the intention is pure, and cause even worse social backlash.

While participants can be coached in how to navigate these relationship complexities, the non-participants often remain unaware of their own resistance to change that can be spurred by someone close to them changing.  If there was a minimal coaching option, these employees could have someone there to help them recognize their resistance and emotion and make a more conscious decision versus letting resistance and emotion make the decisions for them.

The differences in how people come to change are frequently unacknowledged. Some people need data to buy into change. Some people need a compelling emotional outcome. Some will reject any idea that they feel is being imposed upon them. Some people will do something just because it’s the right thing to do and some tend to say yes to everyone else but themselves.  Each of these tendencies needs a different approach to encouraging new habits, and yet still people will change on their own time and terms.

Many companies institute smart policies on security that trains employees to protect corporate data, which promote this sense of distrust. Then employees are asked to share personal health, including mental health data, with a corporate or 3rd party resource.  The need to measure ROI is then communicated as more paramount than wellness. Some programs are all or nothing, and whether a person decides to commit or resist making lifestyle changes that could positively impact. Programs, therefore, need some flex to accommodate what a person is comfortable sharing and changing with the support that can help the person continue to build upon small changes.

The risk assessments and biometric screenings that employers offer can be perceived as an attempt to use fear to scare employees into change, but there are still a lot of people who would not act with that knowledge. In fact, it can make real change seem so unobtainable it can inspire resignation, denial and additional stress. They don’t have to be the only starting point. Already healthy employees are the ones more likely to participate.  Make it easy to start at 0 without having to confront an ugly starting point.

Encouraging employees to start with mindfulness and mini-meditations for stress relief, educating them with information on the scientific basis for it, can help employees start with something that requires little time and change, but lead to greater self-awareness. It is like a gateway drug for change. (Epic Careering is a specialist in Mindfulness, Mediation and Emotional Intelligence Training. Get our full report, How Mindfulness Training Quickly Transforms Organizations, here.)

More companies will find participation increase when obstacles of time and sacrifice are removed when there are flexible participation journeys offered, and when the stigma and relationship complexities of changing within social circles are alleviated from both sides with coaching.

Inherent Inhibitors

Some companies have programs that can’t be followed because actual work policies or facilities inhibit it. Whether it be the work hours, lack of showering facilities, lack of secure bike racks, or a cultural expectation that employees will work or meet during lunch. For example, employees can’t participate in walking Wednesdays if on Wednesdays their boss requires a report due after lunch. Some policies, like accrued sick time, will have more of your workforce in the office when they should be home.  It can keep them sick longer and spread the sickness to more of the workforce.

Some companies offer snacks as perks (or for cost) to employees, but they don’t necessarily qualify as healthy snacks. It may sound like a simple swap from unhealthy snacks to healthy snacks, but when you dig into how much is actually altered, it’s a bit easier to understand why such a simple change can cause resentment. Managers need the training to understand how to help employees vocalize and process even small changes, to reinforce leadership’s commitment to wellness without making employees feel dismissed.

Musculoskeletal issues are a primary reason for absenteeism and a real reason why many people veer off of physical fitness plans. Ergonomic workstations, standing desks, and FSAs (flex spending accounts) that employees can opt to allocate for proactive health efforts, such as chiropractic care, acupuncture, supplements, massage, will serve to augment efforts and reinforce the message that workforce wellness is a priority for the company’s leaders.

Don’t expect employees will be able to form work-based habits and regiments without accommodations to do so. Often companies don’t evaluate the logistical, procedural, and actual lifestyle challenges that keep so many people from making changes, whether a company sponsors and supports that change or not.  Creating lasting changes is already challenging enough; if companies really want their employees to enjoy significant improvements to their health, all policies and facilities need to be evaluated with the intention of eliminating any and all potential logistical, policy, or facility shortcomings. If the ROI of your wellness program is falling short of expectations, look here first.  When you want to level up your ROI, look here first. There is a lot that technology can do to help, and most of the capabilities that can help your company already has.

Next week I will be sharing Part 2 of the rest of this segment. Stay tuned!

Karen Huller, author of Laser-sharp Career Focus: Pinpoint your Purpose and Passion in 30 Days (, is founder of Epic Careering, a corporate consulting and career management firm specializing in executive branding and conscious culture, as well as JoMo Rising, LLC, a workflow gamification company that turns work into productive play. 

While the bulk of her 20 years of professional experience has been within the recruiting and employment industry, her publications, presentations, and coaching also draw from experience in personal development, performance, broadcasting, marketing, and sales. 

Karen was one of the first LinkedIn trainers and is known widely for her ability to identify and develop new trends in hiring and careering. She is a Certified Professional Résumé Writer, Certified Career Transition Consultant, and Certified Clinical Hypnotherapist with a Bachelor of Art in Communication Studies and Theater from Ursinus College and a minor in Creative Writing. Her blog was recognized as a top 100 career blog worldwide by Feedspot. 

She is an Adjunct Professor in Cabrini University’s Communications Department and previously was an Adjunct Professor of Career Management and Professional Development at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business  She is also an Instructor for the Young Entrepreneurs Academy where her students won the 2018 national competition and were named America’s Next Top Young Entrepreneurs.

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