money puzzleWhen was the last time someone asked an insurer or an employer what their return-on-investment is for covering Viagra? Or back surgery? Prostatectomy? Probably never.

Yet we’re repeatedly asked to prove the ROI of wellness — partly because the role of wellness is misunderstood, and partly because we’ve oversold the ROI of wellness, as I outlined in a previous post.

Wellness is as much or more a part of health as those expensive medical procedures. It’s a double-standard to expect that wellness delivers a positive ROI when the same standard is not upheld for much more costly health expenditures.

Some may make the argument that CFOs will always demand ROI because their interests ultimately lie in the bottom line. But CFOs frequently approve expenditures that don’t have a documented ROI, including community service programs, facility maintenance, diversity initiatives, and go-green initiatives, not to mention numerous expenses more directly tied to business goals, such as those associated with creating a brand. All these activities, including wellness, may generate a positive ROI, but it hasn’t been well documented, in many cases because much of the “return” in “return on investment” is difficult or impossible to measure.

When your organization breaks free from what may be a misguided need to generate a numerical value — whether it’s 3:1 or 12:1 — to your wellness program, it will more readily see the full benefits of wellness, beyond the control of health care costs. These include:

  • Helping to keep employees healthy is the right thing to do. In fact, public health is dependent on having all sectors of society — employers as well as governments, schools, faith-based organizations, and so forth — working toward health improvement. Smoking cessation, reduced littering, and civil rights are just a few examples of how major changes in society require the broadest possible efforts. Ultimately, employee health is a component of an employer’s social consciousness.
  • Wellness programs may promote job engagement. A recent Well-Being survey showed that 40 percent of employees believe wellness benefits encourage them to work harder and perform better. Another survey, conducted by the World Economic Forum and Right Management, found that employees are eight times more likely to be engaged in their work when employers actively promote health and well being.
  • Wellness programs may enhance retention. The Well-Being survey cited above found that nearly half of Americans would stay at their jobs longer because of employer-sponsored wellness programs. The Right Management survey found that employers perceived as pro-wellness are 3.5 times more likely to be seen as encouraging creativity and innovation, and their employees are 4 times less likely to report that they plan to leave within the coming year (compared to employees who do not perceive their organizations as actively promoting wellness).

The United States is the only country where health care cost containment is the primary goal of wellness. “Keeping employees healthy and working” is the primary reason cited by most employers outside the U.S. and, notably, “improving workforce morale” is the primary objective in Asian countries, according to a survey by Buck Consultants.

Just as we all need to work on health improvement, we all do also neeed to work on a solution for spiraling health care costs, which requires strategies based on credible data that may include employee wellness ROI. But ROI is not the be-all-and-end-all of employee wellness, and the sooner we peek out from under the cloud of our single-minded focus on ROI, the sooner we can give our full attention to creating great programs that bring to fruition the full potential of employee wellness.