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Wendy Haan, Media Relations
Note: To schedule an interview with Dr. Jon Robison, contact Wendy Haan.
AJHP study: Best research indicates
workplace wellness programs lose money
The findings are sparking debate within the workplace wellness world and leading to questions about the future nature of programs everywhere.
GRANDVILLE, Mich. – The “American Journal of Health Promotion,” (AJHP) the leading publication of the workplace wellness industry, recently released the definitive study that finally answers the decades’ old question: “Do workplace wellness programs really generate a positive return on investment (ROI)?”
Corroborating previous studies, the article’s conclusive evidence that properly evaluated programs don’t lead to financial savings is being met with mixed interpretation and sparking heated debate. The findings are leading some experts to make excuses for the results and prompting others to proclaim the need to end workplace wellness as the business world has known it.
The study’s researchers presented a long list of results, which varied depending on how a person crunched the numbers. Among the figures were the results of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) – the Gold Standard for research and the design used exclusively by the Food and Drug Administration. The RCT data showed the ROIs had an overall mean value of -0.22, which means for every dollar invested in wellness programs, 78 cents was returned. When less valid (actually invalid) means of evaluation were used some programs did show a positive ROI.
In his editor’s note on the study, AJHP’s Editor-in-Chief Michael P. O’Donnell, MBA, MPH, PhD, wrote, “In light of this study, what can we say about the ROI of workplace health promotion programs? The authors’ overall conclusion was that the ‘mean weighted ROI of workplace health promotion demonstrated a positive ROI,’ which means programs seem to pay for themselves… and that is what we should say when asked about the ROI of programs. (As one critic pointed out however, averaging research methods with different validities is like averaging Ptolemy and Copernicus and concluding that the earth revolves half-way around the sun.) For those who want a more precise answer, we can only say, ‘It depends.’”
Jon Robison, PhD, MS, of Salveo Partners, LLC, posted a blog about the study to more precisely answer the “It depends” conclusion of O’Donnell and asked well-known workplace wellness program critic, Al Lewis, who is widely credited with inventing disease management and taught economics at Harvard, for his thoughts.
“I would agree with Dr. Robison and the ‘American Journal of Health Promotion’ that this is indeed the best meta-analysis ever published, and add that I completely support its key finding, which is that valid studies show traditional workplace wellness is a loser.”
Following Robison’s blog, other workplace wellness groups, including the large workplace wellness vendor Staywell, began taking sides on the ROI issue and lobbing defenses and rebuttals back and forth on various websites and online communities.
Over the last three-plus decades, workplace wellness programs have become a staple in many organizations. About half of U.S. employers offer wellness promotion initiatives. The number rises to 90 percent for companies with 50,000 or more employees. Employers spend $2 billion annually on wellness programs. This figure does not include the cost of programs companies develop in-house.
Employers have embraced workplace wellness all these years under the belief that the programs would generate positive ROIs. For every dollar spent, a company could save $2, $3, $5 or more on employee healthcare costs, according to many workplace wellness vendors and consultants. In fact, no recent properly evaluated program has actually demonstrated a positive ROI and the same was true for this review. See The Wellness Industry Pleads the Fifth.
The very best research studies clearly showed that the programs failed to even pay for themselves.
“It appears the AJHP research is damaging enough to the positive ROI argument to change the direction of workplace wellness from a coercive, biomedical model to a more intrinsically-focused, holistic approach that creates work conditions in which organizational and employee wellbeing will thrive, and employees will be freed, fueled, and inspired to bring their best selves to work,” Robison said.