How to talk corporate wellness to the c-suite

March 22, 2019 Janet Lee

In this age of skyrocketing health care costs, a transient workforce (one CareerBuilder survey found 74 percent of employees are either looking for a job or open to a new opportunity), and calls for cost containment, workplace wellness initiatives are in the spotlight — and not always for good reasons. Here's how to communicate the real value of corporate wellness.

“Often with executives there’s a high level of frustration with what they have currently and skepticism that there’s something out there that could really work,” says John Golden, president of product at EXOS. “The options can be overwhelming and they don’t want to abandon what they’ve already invested in,” he says.

1. The return on investment data is there.

Yes, executives are going to want to know that the money they invest in wellness will pay off. There have been numerous studies looking at this issue, with most showing positive returns.

One frequently used average in the wellness arena is around 3-to-1 ROI, but not in the first year. It may take two to four years to see those returns, especially if you’re talking about a reduction in health care costs, which is a lagging measure. Also, there are many ways to calculate ROI, depending on the factors you’re tracking (health care costs, absenteeism, workers’ compensation claims, and so on) and the time frame.

“If there’s a need to quantify it, we certainly encourage it,” says Bill Bourque, president of account management and field operations at EXOS. “But there’s much greater acceptance now that there’s value in developing a wellness program and there’s less need to justify it from an ROI standpoint.”

2. Savvy companies want value of investment.

Value of investment includes factors like employee retention, morale, job satisfaction, and engagement and productivity. “It can include a variety of measures and it’s really up to management to decide what they care about,” says Paul Terry, Ph.D., president and CEO of the Health Enhancement Research Organization.

One aspect that virtually all executives are interested in and that underpins every program is employee engagement. “What percentage of the staff can you get to participate and at what level for how long,” Golden explains. “If we can get 40 percent of them participating at least once a week for more than 12 weeks, that’s a win for everyone.”

Terry describes the above as engagement with a small e, but companies should also consider and pay attention to engagement with a capital E: “It’s how engaged employees are with the company’s overall mission, do they love their jobs, are they in the flow of work. These are the things that separate great companies from good companies.”

3. You’re not building a wellness program. You’re creating a culture.

In health-oriented companies, wellness should permeate every aspect of corporate life. “It doesn’t happen just in the gym or one area,” Bourque says. “You have to create an ecosystem to support wellness, from policies to a fitness center to the cafeteria to healthy vending machines to creating welcoming staircases so employees are more motivated to use them over the elevator.”

These all take courage and conviction and speak to a broader corporate culture — and they engage more people.

When the c-suite leads by example, it inspires employees to participate in corporate wellness, which increases the return on investment.

Often with executives there’s a high level of frustration with what they have currently and skepticism that there’s something out there that could really work.

4. Wellness-focused companies perform better.

Healthier and more engaged and satisfied employees means greater productivity.

A large 2009 Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine study across a variety of industries found that health-related productivity costs are more than twice as much as medical and pharmacy costs. Back and neck pain, obesity, depression, and arthritis — all of which can be addressed with wellness programs — are significant causes of lost productivity, whether due to absenteeism or presenteeism.

Another study in the same journal, this one conducted by the Health Enhancement Research Organization, compared a simulated portfolio of 42 publicly traded companies that had scored highly on its proprietary rating of best practices and compared it to the Standard & Poor’s 500 index. The high-scoring group outperformed the S&P 500 by almost 50 percent over a six-year period.

5. It pays to invest in integrated programs.

“Point” solutions — limited, narrowly focused, and often cookie-cutter options — that work for a portion of the population but not the company as a whole, generally don’t perform as well as integrated programs.

“We had a company that was spending $390 per employee per year on blood workups and the executives were tired of paying for it because every year the results came back and the employees weren’t as healthy as they were the year before,” Golden explains. On its own it seems like a reasonable option, but without support, education, motivation, and a way to make sure you’re targeting the right people in the right way these limited programs can fall short.

This frustration led the company to reach out to EXOS to create a program that cost about 40 percent less and engaged each employee more often with a digital assessment, in-person consultation, personal training, nutrition counseling, and more — meaning better return on health and investment.

“It doesn’t mean you have to abandon what you’ve already invested in,” he adds. “What they needed is an ecosystem that connects people to the right solution for them.” That’s when you start to see higher engagement and value.

6. It will help you recruit more competitively (and do it less often).

People don’t stay at their jobs the way they used to, especially millennials, 58 percent of whom expect to leave their job within three years, according to one survey. Benefits and the company culture do matter. Increasingly, workers are looking for variety and creativity in benefits options and health is part of that. A 2012 survey conducted by Harris Interactive found that 45 percent of employees indicated they’d be more willing to stay at their jobs if there was a wellness program — a 5 percent increase over the prior year.

A 2012 survey conducted by Harris Interactive found that 45 percent of employees indicated they’d be more willing to stay at their jobs if there was a wellness program — a 5 percent increase over the prior year.

Bottom line: The more integrated the program, the more it will benefit your company culture.

How to communicate wellness companywide

While 85 percent of companies with more than 1,000 employees have wellness programs (according to a 2013 Rand Corp. study), only 60 percent of those employees are aware of them. Here’s how to get the word out:

Create touch points.

Lunch-and-learns (or, even better, “walk and burns”), impromptu focus groups, surveys and stretch breaks are all opportunities to gather information on where people are in terms of health and wellness and where they want to be. “You have to look at both their health risks and their interests so people are eager to participate,” Terry says. If you can meet them where they are, you increase engagement and success.

Change your launch strategy.

Organizations have traditionally used company-wide campaign cycles to launch new wellness initiatives. Golden instead suggests rolling out new programs in a wave fashion where you target certain populations that you think you can impact, create results and then move on to another group.

Lead from the C-suite.

Executives should be front and center in modeling healthy behavior. And there’s sound reason behind it. “Because they are on planes all the time, they need to have athlete-level energy levels,” says Ogden Reid, Intel’s vice president of human resources, in a February 2016 article in The Wall Street Journal that features EXOS’ work with Intel. Once they’re on board, Bourque says, “The key is how you leverage that leadership to permeate the organization.”

About the Author

Janet Lee

Janet Lee, L.Ac., DACM, is a health journalist whose work has appeared in Self, Shape, Real Simple, Consumer Reports, SKI, and Cosmopolitan, among other publications.

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