Why Corporate Wellness Programs Fail to Show a Financial ROI

August 3, 2020
Corporate Wellness ROI

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in October 2014 and has been completely updated to include up-to-date research findings.

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. In 2015, the Harvard Business Review published an analysis of multiple reports that showed companies are losing money on corporate wellness investments, rather than having net savings. 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 Financial Cost of Sedentariness

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 most common effects of this heightened inactivity are increased instances of obesity and diabetes, as well as neck, shoulder, and low-back pain from prolonged sitting at a computer. In addition, fatigue and low productivity are associated with sitting disease.

Dr. James Levine Get Up, Stand UpPerhaps 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, every extra hour of sitting cuts two hours off one’s life expectancy. He documents this important research in his book Get Up!: Why Your Chair is Killing You and What You Can Do About It.

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 generation.

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 absence from work due to medical visits and sick days. According to a 2012 report from the Integrated Benefits Institute, the US loses $227 billion per year due to employee absenteeism and what researchers called “presenteeism,” when employees report to work but illness keeps them from performing at their best.

The CDC recently announced that the true medical costs of obesity are far higher than they previously estimated, and the AMA declared that “sitting is the new smoking” when 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” Fails to Produce

Consider the practice of handing out free Fitbits or Fuelbands to employees. While this has become a standard benefit in many corporate wellness programs, studies show that they do not lead to long-term behavior change.

Corporate Wellness Fails to Produce ROI
Fitness trackers are popular in corporate wellness programs, but 1/3 of users stop wearing them regularly after 6 months.

First of all, about one third of people who buy fitness trackers stop using them regularly within six months, and more than half eventually stop using them altogether. Second, 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 flaws become 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.

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 before or after work, it’s about how you work.

Creating an Active, Anti-Chair Culture

Chained to the ChairFor 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 first adopted 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. However, treadmill desk adoption has been much faster in the US, in large part due to the research from Dr. James Levine at the Mayo Clinic. Today, sit-stand desks are the fastest growing employee benefit in the US, according to the Society for Human Resource Management 2017 report.

Not as Easy as Falling Out of a Chair

Large-scale corporate adoption of standing desks and treadmill desks isn’t always easy. Failing to get buy-in from employees before the new equipment arrives often 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 trend 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 affect cultural change in staid organizations.

Practical Steps for Your Workplace

Here are a few easy steps you can take to begin socializing the idea of abolishing sedentary patterns 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.
  • 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 trial center on campus. A trial 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. Setting up multiple units in a trial center is recommended, so that employees can try the next equipment with a colleague.

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. Keep in mind, you can always get free advice from the experts here.

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