The ROI of Workplace Wellness Programs

Workplace wellness programs deliver $4.00 in increased productivity for every $1.00 pent. Or they do nothing. Ir depends which study you read.

The programs are ineffective

Harvard Medical School shared the findings of a highly scientific controlled trial of a workplace wellness program compared workers who participated in a wellness program with those who did not over a period of 18 months. Here are some of the things that did NOT change:

  • body mass index
  • blood pressure
  • cholesterol frequency of absenteeism
  • quality of job performance
  • health care use or spending

A British study of more than 46,000 workers found that the following interventions had no discernible effect:

  • relaxation practices
  • time management
  • coaching including online coaching
  • financial well-being programs
  • well-being apps including sleep apps

Taking a holistic view of well-being, the authors concluded that “The primary finding is that there is no reliable difference in mental well-being across the various outcomes.”

…or they’re awesome

The ROI of $4.00 for every $1.00 invested comes from a University of Chicago study. However, these figures came from calculations of the costs of workers in mental distress. That is, researchers considered how the behaviors of people in distress added expenses to the workplace. They use more medical services, for example, take more time off, and spend more of their workday disengaged. They’re more likely to show signs of substance abuse and to overlook important safety measures.

No argument there.

Then you can extrapolate from those numbers to how much less costly life would be if these people all received effective treatment. But that doesn’t actually mean that the companies studied saved that money. It;’s a theoretical prediction that is not borne out by the observed results.

Why don’t they work?

Deloitte examined this question and suggested one possibility: workplace wellbeing programs are based on trying to encourage employees to make better choices, while leaving the responsibility with them.

“It feels ridiculous to say to a manager who is doing the jobs of three people or has more direct reports than there are hours in a day that all we can do for you is offer you an exercise benefit to deal with the stress and overwhelm of your job,” Colleen Bordeaux of Deloitte pointed out.

The researchers in the Harvard study made the same point, suggesting that free gym memberships were probably used by people who like working out. The benefit will be appreciated by these people, but it won’t lead to change because they already work out. When people experience mental distress because of the stressful conditions at work, wellness programs that essentially just tell them to pull their socks up and take better care of themselves probably won’t do the trick.

A new definition of safety

In manufacturing, safety is job 1. But it may be that safety need sot have a new definition. If labor shortages lead to unreasonable work place expectations, which lead to stress, which then leads to more errors — then those expectations are unsafe in themselves.

If automation increases the pace of work in your facility beyond what is sustainable for human workers, then the pace is unsafe.Mental distress should not be built into our workplaces.

Wellness programs might need to start with the workplace conditions, not with the way people spend their time off the job.

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