The role of wellness for employers has, of late, been like a one-chapter book: good, intriguing, but unsatisfying in the end. Wellness has typically focused on reducing health care costs for employers but it can be so much more, some industry experts say.

“There has been a lot of this belief that if we implement health care programs, we’ll have a tremendous ROI,” says Karen Marlo, vice president with the National Business Group on Health.   “But many have felt that was an inflated comment. Is ROI the right measure in general for wellness programs?”

Recent data from the National Business Group on Health and Optum show businesses are discovering different ways of measuring a return on investment on wellness programs. Overall, there are six metrics on average employers use to track how wellness programs are working, including health and wellness engagement, absenteeism and job satisfaction.

Also see: Scope of wellness programs growing

As wellness programs evolve, employers have shifted from a focus on cost to other areas like increased employee productivity and how wellness impacts the company overall, Marlo notes.

The top three reasons employers say they have wellness programs include reducing health risks, managing or reducing health care costs and improving employee productivity, according to the survey.

The research also reveals a core set of metrics influencing employers’ decisions for using wellness programs, Marlo adds. “For me, it was exciting to see productivity [rank] higher,” she says. “When [employers] jumped in, it was mostly just to curb health care costs.”

Also see: Employers look to wellness programs to combat absenteeism

Other reasons employers see value in wellness programs include:

  • Managing/reducing disability claims.
  • Improving employee job satisfaction.
  • Talent attraction/retention.
  • Improve employee morale.
  • Impact business performance metrics and profitability.

Using wellness as an attraction tool is also growing in popularity, says Seth Serxner, chief health officer at Optum, pointing to employers showcasing wellness programs and fitness centers as they onboard new talent.
The research notes differences between industries and company sizes, with the health care and retail industries using health risk reduction as a primary reason for implementing wellness programs, while manufacturing and financial industries look to wellness programs for health care cost reductions.

Also see: When is the worst time to launch a wellness program?

In addition, the size of a company has an effect on why employers are opting into wellness programs. According to Serxner, companies between 3,000 and 20,000 employees were more likely to be using wellness programs to improve morale and increase energy levels.

On the flip side, companies with 20,000 and more workers tend to launch wellness programs to help manage health care costs and to have a positive impact on business performance, according to the research.

Overall, executives are really looking for employees to make healthy decisions, says Serxner. “I think that may be because employers are really starting to shift those decisions to the employee and family populations so they want to be confident people can make the decisions and have the tools to make them so they aren’t distracted from their day to day jobs.”

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