Workplace wellness in the executive spotlight

Wellness is in the executive spotlight. The Harvard Business Review (HBR) recently featured an article on the return on investment from employee wellness programs. While wellness ROI has been well-documented, this evidence has been confined mainly to the health promotion and occupational epidemiology literature. What’s new in the HBR article is less the case that’s being made – wellness pays off – but rather that it is being made in a flagship management publication.

The article draws on case studies of SAS Institute, Johnson & Johnson, Chevron and 7 other organizations, some familiar to workplace health promotion practitioners. The authors’ research generated this definition of workplace wellness: “an organized, employer-sponsored program that is designed to support employees (and, sometimes, their families) as they adopt and sustain behaviors that reduce health risks, improve quality of life, enhance personal effectiveness, and benefit the organization’s bottom line.”  This compact definition neatly combines individual and corporate outcomes, encouraging us to look beyond an individual employee’s health risks and status.

The key ingredient of highly effective wellness programs is their integration within the organization’s overall strategy. One of the 6 pillars of an effective wellness program is leadership at all levels. Interestingly, this is framed as a success factor, not a prerequisite for launching a wellness program. Indeed, the companies in the study introduced wellness programs because “it was the right thing to do”   and they track ROI to be sure that they are making the best use of wellness dollars and being responsive to employees’ needs.

Also evident in the article, at least reading between the lines, is that successful wellness programs are embedded into corporate culture. They contribute to workforce well-being and performance. Employees who feel engaged in wellness program activities are more engaged in their jobs and in the life of the workplace. So it comes as no surprise that companies championing wellness actually are championing their employees. It’s the total cultural experience, not the wellness program, which matters most in the eyes of employees. That’s why SAS Institute was ranked #1 on Fortune magazine’s 2011 list of Best Companies to Work For in America.

See: L. Berry, A. Mirabito, and W. Baun. What’s the hard return on employee wellness programs?” Harvard Business Review, December 2010, pages 104-112.