Why Corporate Wellness Programs Generally Fail to Show a Financial ROI

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Why Corporate Wellness Programs Generally Fail to Show a Financial ROI

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America’s office workers are suffering from a staggering increase in health issues – mostly related to “sitting disease” – leading to a surge in corporate wellness programs being launched throughout our major corporations, government agencies, and educational institutions. Despite billions spent on incentive programs to get employees to take better care of themselves, these adverse health trends have not reversed themselves. Yes, there have been some measurable improvements – a reduction in emergency room visits for example – but health care costs for America’s employers, and out-of-pocket costs for America’s employees continue to soar. Let’s examine why.

The True Cost of Sedentariness

MedicalWe spend a lot of money on technology in the enterprise, ostensibly to reduce the burden
of our work. Where our parents or grandparents had to walk up flights of stairs to the file room to retrieve a document, we click on a mouse. Where they walked the halls to find colleagues to ask a question, we send an email. Over 100 million US workers are either sedentary – sitting in front of a computer or in meetings all day – or partially sedentary. As a result, the modern day office worker burns at least 1,000 calories less, per day, than previous generations of office workers.

The effects of this heightened inactivity are myriad: dramatic increases of instances of metabolic syndrome (obesity and diabetes); low back pain from sitting too long; neck, shoulder and wrist pain from “computer hunch”; fatigue; and low productivity. Perhaps worst of all, sedentary workers have shorter lifespans. According to Dr. James Levine, the renowned endocrinologist from The Mayo Clinic whose groundbreaking work on sitting disease and sedentariness has led to such revolutionary concepts as the treadmill desk, and author of the new book Get Up!: Why Your Chair is Killing You and What You Can Do About It, every extra hour of sitting cuts two hours off one’s life expectancy.

Two hundred years ago the average person spent three hours a day sitting; today we spend more time sitting than sleeping. Between office work, meetings, commuting, dining, and sitting on the sofa watching television we have become the most inactive generation to have ever lived. In fact we’re the first generation of Americans to have a shorter life expectancy than the prior.

Worse Health, Lower Productivity

Too often, the price of American office workers’ health decline is expressed only in terms of medical costs. However, there are also steep business costs due to decreased productivity. There are two facets to lost productivity: poorer quality of work output and lost time due to shortened work days (from fatigue, back pain, headaches, etc.) and medical visits.

The CDC recently announced that the true medical costs of obesity are far higher than they previously estimated, while the AMA declared that “sitting is the new smoking” as obesity became the new #1 preventable cause of death. Studies are being conducted now to determine the impact on productivity, at least in terms of absenteeism. With all this attention turning to corporate wellness why hasn’t there been a financial ROI? Why do health care costs continue to soar?

Corporate Wellness Theater

Just as many criticize the TSA for creating more “security theater” than actual security against terrorism, corporate America has been largely engaged in “health theater” instead of true office fitness. For evidence of this fact, consider the practice of handing out free Fitbits or Fuelbands to employees which has become de rigueur. These devices measure your level of activity at work, but only when you’re not at your desk. Rather than motivating employees to find ways to get more movement while working – such as through the use of sit-to-stand desks and treadmill desks – they measure only certain physical activities such as walking or jogging. And not very accurately or comprehensively at that. If you want to capture your swimming exercise, for example, you’ll have to hand-enter it.

Ironically, because the pace of strolling at a treadmill desk is half the speed, or less, of actual aerobic walking, the algorithms in these devices are fooled into erroneous under reporting. The novelty of these devices tends to wear off after a few weeks, once their imperfect nature becomes obvious to the user.

But the far bigger issue is that the people who tend not to participate in corporate wellness programs are the ones who are the most costly to the system. It’s another example of the 80/20 rule… the 20% of the employee population who don’t like to exercise, don’t see their doctor often enough, and feel too overworked to take time out for such frivolities are the very ones incurring 80% of the health care tab within their group. So while major employers spend billions on financial incentives for employees to go to the gym, or get a check-up, the people who tend to cash in on those incentives are largely the ones who were already diligent doing these things, or were on the margin.

electric chair

The office chair is the slow, silent killer of the workplace

The result is that health care costs continue to soar as a percentage of wages, despite the extra expenditures in financial incentives and corporate wellness program administration. You’d be hard-pressed to find many companies that claim they’ve seen a financial ROI as a result of their increasing expenditure on corporate wellness. Yet, the solution to this problem is as plain as day.

It’s not about what you do when you’re not working, it’s about the way you work
For many years the go-to response to an employee who was suffering from chair-induced back pain was to buy them a more comfortable – and shockingly expensive – ergonomic chair. Ironically, this allowed the employee to sit even longer, ultimately exacerbating their back issues until more aggressive medical treatments were required.

This phenomenon was much better understood in Europe, where governments began mandating that employees with sedentary jobs be offered a sit-to-stand desk eight years ago. Perhaps due to their health care costs being borne by the government instead of by private employees and citizens, they saw the light on this issue much faster than we have here in America.

There are some enlightened US employers that have begun to transform their work environments with mass deployment of adjustable-height desks and conference tables, as well as treadmill desk workstations, but most have a long way to go or have yet to begin swapping out their static furniture for active furniture.

Not as Easy as Falling Out of a Chair

And there are some pitfalls, too, in how mass transformations like these are executed. Failing to get buy-in from employees before the new equipment arrives usually results in sit-to-stand desks being left permanently at sitting heights, and treadmill desks going unused. Just purchasing the equipment doesn’t do the trick. Successful deployment requires pre-education, continual reinforcement messaging, and implementation of a true cultural change, starting at the top.

There have been many stories of companies replacing all their fixed-height desks with adjustable-height tables, only to find no one standing at their desks. Best practices in this area have been taking longer to develop than the technology has, and this has to change. Too many corporate wellness professionals we deal with regularly have remained somewhat in the dark about the ergonomics of standing and walking desks, and how to best effect cultural change in staid organizations.

Creating an Anti-Chair Culture

Here are a few easy steps you can take to begin socializing the idea of abolishing sedentariness in your workplace:

– Buy a few copies of Dr. Levine’s book and ask your leadership to read them – especially those who manage largely sedentary groups. The low-hanging fruit will be in departments such as call centers, IT, HR, legal, finance, and marketing.

– Check out this PowerPoint from iMovR on New Strategies for Getting More Movement in the Workplace, which was written as a complement to Levine’s book to outline practical first steps for employers interested in adopting a chair-less culture.

– Gather a committee of like-minded departmental leaders who’d like to improve their workers’ health, productivity, happiness, and retention, and start outlining an office fitness pilot program for trialing the use of active furniture options such as standing desks, desktop risers, active leaning stools and treadmill desks.

– Set up a trialing center on campus. A trialing center is an inviting, centrally-located facility where employees can bring their laptops to try out working at a standing desk, desktop riser or treadmill desk, before requesting them for their own offices or for shared departmental use.

You can seek advice from ergonomics and corporate wellness professionals on the best options for your particular organization, though keep in mind that many of them have little or no exposure to the newer products in the burgeoning field of active furniture. Of course you can always get free advice from the experts on SitLess.com’s Corporate Solutions team.