A Healthy ROI: Working Wonders with Wellness


By Ingrid Vaughan

These days, few would argue the importance of employee engagement on a company’s bottom line. Where once “engagement” was a concept that didn’t even appear on an employer’s radar, then became arguably one of the most used buzzwords in business, it is now integral to any operation. Why? It is a well accepted fact that employee engagement has a significant, tangible impact on a company’s success.

Countless resources currently provide business owners with information on how to better engage their teams. HR practitioners constantly look for ways to do this more effectively. The evidence is overwhelming and the efforts ongoing.

Engaging the Evidence on Wellness
The impact of employee health and wellness on business is now where engagement was 10 years ago. There is also significant evidence on the ROI of lowering stress and a creating a healthier workforce, but it’s taking businesses a while to catch up. While many HR professionals are striving to convince their organizational leaders that investing in employee wellness will have big pay-offs, assumptions around cost and value leave many straggling to get on board.

While some things have changed—not so long ago smoking was permitted in offices, restaurants and airplanes—there remains a healthy margin for improvement. According to a Maclean’s article in October, 2007, “Stress is part of an explosion in workplace mental health issues now costing the Canadian economy an estimated $33 billion a year in lost productivity, as well as billions more in medical costs.”

Furthermore, Statistics Canada reports that almost one-third of the Canadian workforce describe their lives as “highly stressful.” Moreover, six in 10 highly-stressed workers identify work as their main source of stress.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety states “Workplace health and wellness programs should be a part of the overall company strategy for a healthy workplace.” While statistics show that the trend toward providing wellness initiatives is growing, many HR professionals are still having to make a case for employee wellness.

Why So Bullish About Health??
A 2015 research survey report by Deloitte titled, “Employers Still Bullish on Wellness Programs,” states that while employers generally believe that wellness programs are an important recruitment and retention tool, they also view some components of these programs as negative, invasive, or another chore they have to fulfill.

Then there is the issue of mandatory versus optional. If you make programs mandatory, you may find some employees feeling resentful or “put upon,” especially if they are already involved in health and wellness activities. As soon as you make something mandatory, it no longer feels like a perk or benefit. However, if you make it optional, the potential exists that those who need it most will choose not to participate. As stated in the survey, “These findings point to the tension that sometimes exists around employee wellness.”

Another reason employers may drag their heels is that measuring the ROI of a wellness program can be difficult. While theoretically, a business may be convinced that health and wellness is good for employees and thus business, practically, they may not be convinced it will be good for THEIR business. According to the Deloitte research, “Seeing effects from programs is not immediate and might take time. Few employers likely have the scale, resources, and infrastructure to produce a credible ROI that is specific to their program and population.”

Finally, there is an underlying fear that even with the benefits of implementing health and wellness programs, the costs will be prohibitive. However, with so much information on health and wellness readily available, a simple Google search can provide dozens of low-cost ways to get started. Finding something that engages, but does not break the bank, is possible. (Download a .pdf of 101 low cost ideas.)

Engagement is the Global Key
Interestingly, wellness initiatives are most successful within organizations with high levels of employee engagement. That said, some organizations have also used wellness initiatives to increase engagement.

I recently participated in a program called the Global Corporate Challenge (GCC). GCC is a global movement, founded in Australia. Since its inception in 2003, it has reached nearly two million employee participants annually, involving 4,700 organizations across 185 countries. It truly is a global movement.

The GCC program (www.gettheworldmoving.com) is based on turning activities (walk, swim, cycle) into “steps,” which are documented and accumulated throughout the term of the program. Employees participate in teams and team progress is monitored and calculated by the GCC online. The program takes Participants literally “walk” around the world as the GCC maps out how far teams travel based on their collective number of steps. Our team walked—virtually—from Paris, France, to Rio di Janeiro, Brazil, and I personally walked the distance of equivalent Victoria to Calgary.

Highly “gamified,” the program provides interactivity, forums, badges, awards and incentives for both individuals and teams to maintain and increase their steps. In our company, 21 out of 23 employees participated, and the engagement it created was beyond our greatest expectations. Not only did we see people improve their health—walk instead of drive, park farther away, go on group walks, use the stairs, eat better—but the friendly competition in the office was incredible. The daily buzz as people compared their results and found ways to inspire their teams to greater “stepping” was impressive. Not only did we have a much healthier team when it was over, we had a closer-knit team that could hardly wait for the next year.

Finding the Fit a Healthy Start
This is just one example of how engagement and employee wellness are closely linked. The important thing for any company considering a wellness initiative is that is fits their team, their culture, and their budget.

Here are a few ideas to illustrate:

a company located outside a city core lacking nearby food/restaurant options could provide healthy snacks for their employees;
a downtown company might choose to implement lunch-hour walks or dedicate a space in the office for stretching or yoga;
a company with a large Millennial workforce may choose to implement an online program that contains elements of gaming; and
another might provide staff with Fitbits and create an internal competition.

Most importantly—to make the most of your energies and ROI—before embarking on a health and wellness of any kind:

Find out what employees want (as opposed to to what YOU THINK they want). Consider creating a wellness committee to provides suggestions;

  • Use activities that encourage connection. Individuals activities are great, but if you want your wellness efforts to really have an impact they need to connect your team;
  • Start small: try it out, get feedback, and adjust accordingly;
  • Choose something that does not exceed your capacity to administer and maintain; and
  • Find ways to measure the effectiveness of your efforts (e.g. are people more alert and energetic late in the afternoon on days when they’ve gone for a lunch hour walk?). This can help you determine what’s working and what’s not.

Dr. Cynthia Akrill, a physician trained in neuroscience, wellbeing and leadership coaching and expert GCC Consultant captures it precisely when she says, “Cultures that promote wellbeing, safety and human connection drive engagement and ultimately become more competitive. Employers can create a culture that connects it to better business outcomes.”

In short, research shows that individuals with healthier lifestyles tend to cost the company less and are more productive.

A healthier, less stressed, more productive workforce AND higher levels of engagement, emotional commitment and behaviours that lead to improved business outcomes? The ROI on employee wellness is pretty clear.

As founder of SMART HR, Ingrid Vaughan is an experienced HR generalist on Vancouver Island committed to help build dynamic, engaged teams and growing successful businesses.

(PeopleTalk Summer 2016)

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