Workplace Wellness Programs: Only 37% Bother to See if They Work

See update below.

It was frequent TLNT contributor (and health and wellness expert) Fran Melmed who seemed to have the right perspective on the big push for workplace wellness. Here’s what she said in a post back in November :

Wellness needs to be an integral part of a company’s culture, not just a program, if it’s to stand a chance. That’s because a culture is pervasive, deeply ingrained, and unshakable. It’s shared, valued, and ritualized by all.

And when companies start thinking about wellness as part of their culture rather than as a one-off program, they’ll start examining their other values and rituals, and yes, the programs, that run roughshod over this cultural norm.”

Fran’s point – that all-too-many workplace wellness programs are not really seen as a critical part of a company’s culture – was spot on, especially given the results of a new global survey on wellness released by Buck Consultants.

Companies spending more on wellness

Here’s the news hook: despite spending more on employee wellness programs in 2010, only 37 percent of U.S. employers actually bother to measure their program’s effectiveness.

The survey, titled “WORKING WELL: A Global Survey of Health Promotion and Workplace Wellness Strategies,” found that organizations spent 35 percent more – about $220 – on each employee who participated in a wellness program in 2010 compared to 2009.

“Organizations that measure the impact of their wellness programs are more successful at improving their employees’ health and overall wellness,” said Barry Hall, a Buck principal who directed the survey. “However, many simply don’t know how to measure their results, or they don’t have the resources to do so.”

According to the survey, wellness programs continued to gain momentum among U.S.-based organizations as a key strategy to reduce the cost of providing health care, improve worker productivity, and reduce absenteeism.

There’s no big surprise there, but what is surprising is that while U.S. organizations focus on wellness primarily as a cost reduction tool, global employers have slightly different take.

Differences for global employers

For them, improving productivity is the most important objective for wellness programs, with improving workforce morale and engagement rising from the third to the second most important objective.

The Buck survey also found that among U.S. respondents, 40 percent have measured how wellness programs affect the cost of providing health care benefits to their employees. Of those, 45 percent report success in slowing health care cost increases, with a typical reduction of two to five percentage points per year.

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The U.S. results contrast with results in other regions on the health risks that drive wellness programs. Globally, reducing workplace stress is the top driver of wellness programs, particularly in Canada, Europe, Asia, Australia, the Middle East, and Africa. In the United States, the lack of physical activity is the top driver, and stress ranks much lower (sixth) as a health risk targeted by these programs.

Other key findings of Buck’s wellness study include:

  • Globally, 66 percent of respondents have a formal wellness strategy, a significant increase from 49 percent in 2007.
  • Wellness programs are most prevalent in North America, where 74 percent of responding employers offer them.
  • Some 11 percent of U.S. respondents spend more than $500 per employee per year on wellness rewards, with the largest rewards reported at $3,000 per employee.
  • The fastest-growing components of wellness programs are technology-driven tools. In three years, employers around the world expect a six-fold increase in their use of mobile technology – such as smart phones – to support employee wellness initiatives.

WORKING WELL” is the fourth annual global wellness survey by Buck Consultants (a wholly owned subsidiary of ACS, A Xerox Company), which analyzed responses from more than 1,200 organizations in 47 countries representing more than 13 million employees. It was conducted in association with Pfizer, CIGNA, Wolf Kirsten International Health Consulting, and WorldatWork.

Although you need to pay to see the full survey results, I’ve asked Buck Consultants for the executive summary to post here. I’ll do that once I get it, because I know that there is a lot of interest in wellness given, as the survey points out, how much more organizations are spending on it.

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UPDATE: Here is the executive summary of WORKING WELL: A Global Survey of Health Promotion and Workplace Wellness Strategies, courtesy of Ed Gadowski of Buck Consultants.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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