Stop obsessing over wellness ROI

Today’s guest blogger suggests employers’ focus on measuring the return on investment for wellness programs is distracting from the real effects these programs can have. Read on and let me know if you agree. –Andrea Davis, Managing Editor

Within the span of a few short weeks, I read one study touting a 7-to-1 return on investment for wellness programs, followed by a second report stating wellness has little financial ROI, if any. I also came across multiple articles citing the popular Harvard study, which concluded that wellness produces a 3.27 to 1 ROI, and blog posts refuting the validity of the same Harvard study, questioning its ability to offer decisive evidence that wellness programs generate financial returns. 

My reaction to these dueling headlines is simple. As an industry, we should step away from the calculators, stop torturing the numbers and gain a bit of perspective. There is no return on obsessing over the ROI of wellness programs.

The only thing these headlines confirm is that ROI is hard to measure. There are lots of variables and variability among programs. Intangibles that are difficult to quantify. Value that is hard to fully claim without regard to the rest of the health care equation. Not to mention accounting for things that would have happened but didn’t because of wellness interventions.

Our obsession with ROI started logically enough. In a quest to establish credibility, legitimacy and meaningful impact, proponents of wellness turned to financial ROI as the central value proposition. Maybe that was necessary to recover from a history where wellness was too often seen as a feel-good, nice to have perk instead of a mission critical driver of positive business outcomes.

But because of the hard sell on financial performance, we have perpetuated a myopic view of wellness and all that it has to offer. What’s more, we’ve placed unnecessary pressure on wellness to generate results that are largely unrealistic, i.e. deliver immediate financial value.

Wellness is about more than reducing health care costs. It’s about creating massive value for organizations. Some might suggest this is stretching reality a bit. Those people have never seen a wellness program properly implemented and continually supported over time.

One recent report cited, almost apologetically, that although there was no short-term financial return, the wellness program in question did reduce hospitalizations by 40% for targeted conditions. It’s a sad day when there’s not enough value in preventing numerous employees from having heart attacks to unequivocally declare such a program as being a wild success, simply because these outcomes didn’t immediately deliver a hard financial return.

What we need to do now is remember why we started offering wellness in the first place, which was not solely to generate a financial return. And we need to shift our attention to helping employers address some of the more pressing issues that are actually holding wellness back, such as engagement.

If we want to continue getting better at calculating the financial returns associated with wellness, then so be it. But we need to be honest and ask ourselves what are the chances that we’ll find a bulletproof, undisputed methodology for measuring ROI that can be consistently applied across populations and programs? And are there better ways to invest our time and energy?

Companies like Apple have proven again and again that if you focus on doing things the right way, you’ll succeed. I think the same is true with wellness. In the case of  iPhones and iPads, it’s all about creating a high quality product that brings with it a powerful user experience. For wellness, it’s taking care of your people the best way you can. Do that, and the financial rewards will find you. No calculators required.

Heath Shackleford is the founder of Good.Must.Grow, a marketing agency focused on social enterprises, health and wellness and nonprofits.

Do you agree? Is it time for employers to stop obsessing about wellness ROI? Is it the right direction for the industry? Share your thoughts in the comments.


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