Workplace Wellness Programs: Are They Really Worth the Investment?

What’s in it for companies that devote time and money into health management programs? Lower health insurance premiums? Happier employees?

Workplace wellness programs can bring both benefits and liabilities into your organization. Here’s what you need to consider before launching or redesigning your health management initiatives.

Why workplace wellness?


1. Cost containment

Promoting wellness as a way to contain rising costs of healthcare has been researched extensively, but the verdict remains unclear.

One 2012 report found that most North American employers who have analyzed the ROI of their wellness programs saved one to three health plan dollars per dollar invested. Other research offers similarly promising figures.

But as the Society for Human Resource Management points out in a 2013 article, it’s difficult to measure the ROI because workplace wellness programs can differ greatly company-to-company.

Therefore, many companies have decided that the financial case for wellness programs is “good enough,” concluding that taking some action is more likely to curb health care costs than taking no action.

Still, there’s more to workplace wellness than just health care cost containment.

2. Healthy, happy culture

A workplace wellness program can also play a big role in your company’s intangible culture of health, safety, productivity and quality of life. Having a program can help you compete for talent, encourage healthy choices and stimulate peer interaction.

A client I worked with once described this elusive benefit as “seeing more smiling faces than frowning” when she looked at her employees. Basically, when you show your staff that you care about them, especially beyond what they contribute to your company, they are much happier.

This feel-good effect can go a long way.

It can impact the way your employees interact with your customers. It can affect how many good ideas come out of a brainstorming session. And, focusing on creating and maintaining a healthy and happy culture may offset a limited benefits and compensation package.

What to try

What is the best way to determine whether workplace wellness initiatives deserve more of your time? Start small, but do try something new – implement changes that your employees will notice and hopefully get excited about. Then measure the health plan dollars you save against the dollars you’ve invested, and pay close attention to how your new or revived wellness program influences your company culture.

Here are some low-cost wellness program ideas to bring to the planning table.

1. Allow employees to take walk breaks
2. Negotiate corporate discounts for health club memberships.
3. Provide bicycle racks
4. Ask your vending machine company to add healthy foods
5. Replace vending machines with a steady supply of fruit, popcorn and other healthy snacks
6. Make a kitchen area accessible to all employees
7. Provide drinking water with fountains or coolers
8. Give out t-shirts to employees who participate in any wellness program activity
9. Allow flex hours to promote work-life balance.
10. Provide access to an employee assistance program (EAP)
11. Put up posters encouraging a desk stretching routine


What to know

While the ideas above are fairly low-risk in addition to being low-cost, be aware that some wellness program activities can open you up to increased liabilities.

For example, if you were to host a masseuse at a wellness fair, and an employee got injured, it could result in a workers’ compensation claim. And collecting medical information on your employees from health screenings or health risk assessments could expose you to discrimination charges.

In addition, wellness programs that are not based solely on voluntary participation (e.g., programs with activity and outcome based requirements) are subject to a host of additional requirements under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that can expose you to penalties if not satisfied.

Recently, the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) found several corporate wellness programs to be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act. These are good examples of the risk these programs can pose if not designed and administered in compliance with applicable laws.

For these reasons, before implementing a new wellness plan, you should involve your legal counsel.

With Insperity Workforce Optimization, you get dedicated HR support that helps you weigh all the options before your next big employer initiative. Find out what is included in our full-service HR offering.