Today’s guest blogger maintains that wellness programs may be worth less than what many vendors claim and advocates for a lean (cheap) start-up approach when implementing a program. Do you agree? Share your thoughts in the comments. —Andrea Davis, Managing Editor

The debate over whether wellness programs “work” is becoming increasingly heated. While many question the validity of research showing wellness programs reduce health care costs, others swear by their wellness provider.

Whatever the actual outcome of this debate, it’s reasonable to assume it’s simply too soon to tell. This doesn’t mean wellness programs are worthless, just that they may be worth less than the benefits declared by many vendors.   

In a scenario where the value of a product is unclear, it’s wise to minimize costs, as cost is the only variable you truly have control over. Traditional approaches to launching wellness initiatives come with huge overhead — strategy, vendor selection, implementation and vendor fees can easily run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars and take years before having any real impact on even a single employee. Cut as much of this overhead as possible. Vendor selections should come in the form of free trials with groups of employees. Vendor fees should be contract free and have monthly options for easy exit. Strategy work should turn into small experiments with employees to identify what works and what doesn’t.

But how do you drive a high level of engagement in wellness with limited resources? We suggest using the Lean Startup methodology used by startups to drive engagement in new products using limited resources. This approach advocates using small, inexpensive steps that lead to quick wins and continuous improvement. Its use could help HR quickly and cheaply differentiate what works from what doesn’t, so HR can focus time and dollars on what’s actually effective.

Here’s our HR-adapted version of the Lean Startup methodology:

Step 1: Think in terms of a “Minimum Viable Product”

MVP is the smallest thing you can do to learn how to make progress toward your objective. For most employers, the objective of their wellness programs will be somehow tied to employee participation. Instead of spending limited resources on building business cases and other costly activities, pick something to do that is small and will help you learn what works to gain employee participation.

Step 2: Build something that’s “good enough”

Start with something easy, like an employee video testimonial about a benefit that’s already available (but likely under-appreciated), such as gym reimbursement. Upload the video to a video hosting tool for businesses so you can track how many people click the link and view your video. Send an email to employees inviting them to watch the video. Explain that this is a “beta” and you’re testing concepts for a potential wellness initiative. Distribute it to a small group first to ensure everything is working.

Step 3: Measure

Measuring is essential. If you don’t measure results you can’t test your assumption about how a particular strategy will work or learn from it. Once the email is sent, you’ll know how many people clicked the link, and how many people viewed the video and for how long. These key performance indicators — KPIs — provide a baseline for identifying progress and future improvements.

Step 4: Learn

This is the most important step. By this point, you should have gained some idea of what's working well and what's not, and the data necessary to improve key metrics. These are the types of tangible outcomes necessary to propel any wellness initiative forward. What can you do to increase those numbers? The faster you can repeat this process and improve your KPIs, the more momentum you’ll gain — and the sooner you can determine the potential effectiveness of wellness initiatives without a huge expenditure of scarce resources.

Whether the results achieved with wellness programs are worth their cost is a debate that will likely continue. That said, there’s little doubt that a key ingredient to achieving ROI on wellness programs — or any HR initiative — is employee participation. The HR-adapted Lean Startup approach lets you know whether you’ve got this key ingredient — before you’ve spent a lot of time and money hoping to get it.

Vlad Gyster is CEO and cofounder of h.engage, a company that helps organizations drive engagement in workplace programs using social mobile gaming. He can be reached at vlad@hengage.com.

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