The Debate About Workplace Wellness ROI is Over; The American Journal of Health Promotion Settles the Matter Once and For All

Workplace Wellness proponents and critics alike agree that the definitive study on the financial impact of workplace wellness programs has now been done. The “American Journal of Health Promotion,” arguably the flagship publication of the workplace wellness industry, just called its study:

“The best one ever conducted on the financial impact of workplace health promotion programs…”

And:

“One of the best reviews ever conducted on ANY topic in workplace health promotion.”

The review article, “The Relationship Between Return on Investment and Quality of Study Methodology in Workplace Health Promotion Programs,” examined 51 studies in nine industry types in 12 nations with more than 260,000 participants.

And what did the researchers find? In the authors’ own words:

“We found that as methodological quality improved, return on investment decreased, and we found a negative ROI in randomized control trials.”

To be a bit more precise, in the randomized controlled trials (RCTs) — the Gold Standard for research trials and the one exclusively used by the Food and Drug Administration to evaluate new drug applications — ROIs for the interventions studies had an overall mean value of -0.22. This means that for every dollar invested in these programs, 78 cents was returned. In other words, the programs did not pay for themselves. (The article found that invalid study designs did show savings and proposed “averaging” those results with the RCTs to find an ROI from wellness greater than 1-to-1. However, that would be like “averaging” Copernicus and Ptolemy to conclude that the earth revolves halfway around the sun.)*

So there we have it: The best research ever published on the subject has finally put the issue to rest. Even Al Lewis, co-author with Vik Khanna of Surviving Workplace Wellness with Your Dignity, Finances and (Major) Organs Intact, and perhaps the most persistent, vociferous critic of the research, has been placated. When I asked Mr. Lewis for his opinion on the quality of this published research, he replied without hesitation:

“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.”

In fact, no one loses here. Proponents and critics alike can now stop wasting any more valuable time and energy arguing about whether these programs save money; and businesses can stop prying, poking, prodding and punishing their employees and get back to the task of creating workplaces that make people want to bring their best selves to work each and every day.

It is indeed a good day, and this is a win-win proposition for all stakeholders.

*Studies were invalid because, among other things, they all compared active, motivated participants to inactive, unmotivated non-participants and concluded that the difference in outcomes was due to the program, not self-selection, even though one wellness vendor, Health Fitness Corporation, already showed that the simple act of splitting those two groups yields a substantial performance difference even without a program in place.

Jon Robison, PhD, MS, MAJon is an accomplished speaker, teacher, writer and consultant. He has spent his career advocating that health promotion shift away from its traditional, biomedical, control-oriented focus, with a particular interest in why people do what they do and don’t do what they don’t do. Jon has authored numerous articles and book chapters and is a frequent presenter at national and international conferences. He is also co-author of the book, “The Spirit & Science of Holistic Health — More than Broccoli, Jogging and Bottled Water, More than Yoga, Herbs and Meditation.” This work formed the foundation for one of the first truly holistic employee wellness programs — Kailo. Kailo won awards in both Canada and The United States, and the creators lovingly claim Jon as its father. Contact Jon at: jon@salveopartners.com or jonrobison.net.

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