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ROI for workplace wellness

How do you sort the information? Where do you start? How do you justify the time and expense? These are some of the questions in the minds of professionals in health and safety, HR, managers, supervisors and senior leaders. 

Most understand the social value and want to do something to help us take charge of our health, to make our workplaces healthier places for people, improve the culture of the workplace environment, to leverage the competition for talent and retain those we have. For many, however, it is overwhelming, and for others, it is yet to be proven. Do more and do it with less — it’s the stress of dealing with stress!

Every day in the mainstream media there are articles on wellness and mental health. In this topsy-turvy world we have created, we are making people sick — in body, in mind and in spirit.  It is a world where every day brings new and mostly devastating news to absorb. The stress of life is taking its toll and adding to the challenges in organizations. We have a global epidemic.

The data on mental health, stress, workplace engagement, presenteeism, depression and anxiety, prescription drug use, long-term absences and disability is overwhelming. Author and artist Jennifer Yane once said about her mental illness: “I try to take one day at a time, but sometimes several days attack me at once.”

I have always been a glass half-full person. For me life is about possibilities. Workplace wellness programs are chock-full of possibilities to assist in managing and eliminating the ‘attacks.’

As a key element in a healthy workplace strategy, personal wellness is a vital link to illness and injury prevention, improved job performance, productivity improvement and most importantly — in my view — positive trusting relationships with co-workers and leadership.   

There is no question healthy employees cost employers less in benefits, workers’ compensations claims and lost work days, and improve worker engagement. The return on investment (ROI) is profound. A 2010 Harvard Business Review study showed since 1995, the percentage of Johnson and Johnson employees who smoke has dropped by more than two-thirds. High blood pressure declined by more than half. The pay-off for Johnson and Johnson estimated by their leaders was a cumulative savings of $250 million on health-care costs over the past decade. From 2002 to 2008, the return was $2.71 for every dollar spent. Based on the Harvard study, wellness initiatives save an employer an average of $394 per employee per year, while the programs only cost an average of $159 per employee per year — creating an ROI of $3.36 for every $1 spent.

Canadian studies have shown comparable tangible results, and many insurance companies such as Mercer are offering percentage reductions in group premiums for organizations that are committed to forge the world of wellness.

Returns on healthy workplace reported by large private sector organizations range from $1.81 to $6.15 for every $1 invested. However, there remains limited research on return on investment, and wellness consultants are going to have to show return.

While we know healthy people and healthy organizations equate to improved morale, trust, commitment, passion, productivity, quality, reduced injuries, reduced physical and physiological illness, reduced losses of all types, we also need to be able to tell the story in business terms.  

Sun Life Financial and the Ivey School of Business are conducting a two-year study to determine ROI for workplace wellness. Dr. Michael Rouse, with the Richard Ivey School of Business and director of the health sector, outlined the study last May. 

Do we need such rigor? I say yes. It is one thing for us to know in our hearts and minds that it is the right thing to do and will pay off in many ways. It is quite another to be able to show the business case and return on investment in times of restraint.

When I was CEO of the Industrial Accident Prevention Association, we undertook a comprehensive healthy workplace strategy. Employee wellness was an integral element. We undertook a base evaluation including a survey of our staff. As a leading health and safety organization, we were probably under greater scrutiny by our staff and public. Staff was skeptical at the beginning, but by the end of the ten-year timeline, there were marked improvements (in some cases dramatic) in all areas, including absenteeism, drug plan usage, smoking, weight loss, overall health and wellbeing and over 50 per cent improvement in job satisfaction and sense of job control. As well, there was vast improvement in the belief that leadership cared. We could clearly show the return on investment to our board of directors and our staff.

So what to do and where to start? If employees think this is only a cost containment/cost reduction strategy, there will be huge skepticism and poor participation. Design a plan and take one day at a time. 

Just doing flu shots or blood pressure readings and wellness fairs as a one-off event can seem suspicious to workers — so make them part of the wellness plan. Building partnership and engagement with employees in the design and development of the plan is critical. Multilevel leadership — from the CEO’s office down and from the bottom up — will build that trust and relationships needed for success. Create and communicate the plan together. You won’t be able to do all things at once, but be transparent about the plan and results.

By the way, if you hire a wellness consultant to assist, make sure they are a good fit, that they understand long-term commitment and the importance of building in measurements on the return on investment. This is not the soft stuff of business; in my view, it is the hard stuff.

We have and are seeing a paradigm shift. Safety and prevention is now about both the physical, mental, social and spiritual person — the whole person. While important, those organizations that hide behind and wait for numbers to justify their actions will lose in the minds of their employees and their customers.

Maureen Shaw

Maureen Shaw is the former president and CEO of the Industrial Accident Prevention Association (now amalgamated into the Workplace Safety and Prevention Services). She spent over 14 years as leader of the IAPA, transforming it from a traditional safety training organization to one that approaches workplaces as psychologically safe and healthy places for people and business to be prosperous. Maureen holds key positions in several national organizations, including the Mental Health Commission of Canada where she is a member of the advisory committee on workforce mental health.
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