How do you know if your company’s wellness program is working?

Recently we visited a large health organization interested in Optum’s services to help extend the company’s wellness program to its operations in other countries. We asked about the senior leadership’s expectations for return on investment. The company rep looked a bit puzzled and replied that senior management had never pressed for any sort of measure of return on investment. For them, good health and wellness are wrapped up in the company’s mission. The overriding goal is to keep employees healthy and well because it is simply good business practice. That’s the company’s barometer of success.

The example was enlightening and reminded us that companies have different needs when it comes to defining the success of their wellness programs. Wellness is individual, and the reasons companies implement programs vary. As a result, wellness programs – and the measures of their benefits – need to be customized around a company’s culture, core values and goals for changes among employees.

In the Optum 2012 Wellness in the Workplace survey, we found that the majority of companies who responded practice wellness in the workplace to increase employee productivity and improve overall health. Others seek to reduce absenteeism or turnover, or to improve morale or job satisfaction. A few view wellness as a competitive advantage and a strategic differentiator. And, of course, many want to reduce long-term health care costs.

The key to measuring the impact of wellness programs depends on each individual company’s definition of success within its own corporate culture. There is no cookie-cutter approach to corporate wellness because these initiatives involve interplay between a company’s culture, its communication style, its incentives and its senior leadership’s support. To be most effective, wellness should be viewed as a management strategy supported by a business case with measurable outcomes. In some cases, those measures might be decreases in health care claims and increases in program participation. In others – like the company we visited – the measure of success may be as simple as believing it’s the right thing to do.

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