Corporate Wellness Programs: Booster or Baloney?

Do Workplace Wellness Programs Work?


IS THERE A RETURN ON INVESTMENT on workplace wellness?  There’s been some debate if office wellness programs help improve immunity, reduce absenteeism, enhance productivity and happiness among colleagues.  To tackle these questions, the Institute for Health and Productivity Studies at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Transamerica Center for Health Studies presented their findings in the report, “From Evidence to Practice: Workplace Wellness that Works.”  It offers practical advice to companies based on the latest research on office programs, expert advice from practitioners and candid interviews with business leaders.

According to a 2015 survey of 1,997 firms by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 49% of companies with less than 200 employees offer wellness programs while 81% of larger companies do.  The programs are usually combined with questionnaires and a healthy living culture, like free fruits in the pantry.  But there’s not a lot of rigorous data on cholesterol, blood pressure or weight management in office wellness programs.

The conclusion is that some are effective while others fail.  According to the Harvard Business Review, here are top tips in creating an effective workplace wellness program:


  • Don’t send employees to a health plan website: They’re usually rather boring and not comprehensive  programs
  • Don’t offer short-term campaigns: One-off events are enjoyable, but long-term progress depends on consistency
  • Don’t reward employees to change their habits:  Studies show that it’s generally ineffective and can lead to resentment or even rebellion


  • Take it from the top: Instill a leadership commitment to embed a healthy work environment in the company vision.
  • Build a culture of whole health: this includes a culture of supportive business practices and also of physical and social well-being. Examples include implementing a sabbatical policy, offering healthy food, and providing social support.  An example is Dow Chemical, which has promoted a culture of whole health for more than 30 years.  Peer reviewed studies have shown employees’ health improved and company costs contained.
  • Grab high employee engagement: programs need to be engaging to succeed. And the easiest way is to understand which initiatives are important to employees.  Once implemented, communication is key to get clear messages out on what the program is, how it works, what’s in it for them and what are the ways to get involved.
  • Measure the right things: evaluation is critical to maintaining accountability so develop an evaluation plan that can be monitored in a time series. There are 2 metrics:  the tangible return on investments (ROI) and the intangible value of investment (VOI).  ROI covers statistics like health statistics, lower corporate expenses and higher productivity.  Johnson & Johnson introduced its worksite health promotion program over 30 years ago.  The company calculated an annual average per saving of US$565 per employee in 2009 dollars, producing a ROI of $1.88-3.92 saved for every $1 spent on the program.   On the other hand, VOI covers talent attraction, retention, brand loyalty, brand culture alignment and employee morale.


In the age of mindfulness at work, leaders are now tasked to orchestrate a program from the many wellness vendors to present a solution that complements the firm’s culture.  Fundamentally, research shows that to get a real improvement in the ROI of a wellness program, employers should first understand the importance of VOI, based on the desired company culture.  The rewards can be great, both for the company and employees, for the long term.