The Value of Investing in Employee Well-being

As I write this, I am on my way over to Shanghai for the second annual HR Tech China event, having just attended Virgin Pulse’s fourth annual customer conference called the Thrive Summit. I am actually writing in the Delta Sky Club, trying to squeeze this in between flights, events and the thousand other things that are going on – both with work and with “not work.” I am probably trying to do to many things at once. Probably just like you are too. And probably also like many, if not most of the people on whom you rely in your organization. I don’t know for sure, but it just seems like everyone is more stressed, more time-pressed and forced to manage more with less, and do it all faster than ever before. How often have you answered the question “How are you?” with a reply of “Busy”?

Don’t even get me started on the larger issue of work/life balance, of how technology and the pace of modern business are continuing to blur – if not erase – whatever walls of separation many of us used to enjoy having between work and “not work.” For lots of professionals today, there never really does seem to be a time when work stops. If we thought about work like we think about a bad or destructive habit, it would be a habit that we realize that we can never quit completely – we just attempt to create occasional longer time spans between relapses.

A quick look around any workplace these days and it feels like working more, taking less time off (I just saw some recent data on the millions of vacation days Americans let go unused each year), becoming more financially stressed, eating more, exercising less and by whichever barometer or definition you prefer, falling short of reaching our potential at work and maybe at home too. And while this is a problem for many of us at home, and in our personal lives, it might be an even larger problem for HR and business leaders as well. After all, their job is at least in large part, centered around achieving organizational goals and desired business outcomes through people. But that becomes a hard job when the people are, well, not as “well” as they could be.

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Behavioral Data

One consistent element of wellness and well-being programs has been the collection of individual behavioral data: steps taken, calories consumed, hours of sleep logged, etc. While this kind of data has been the foundation of wellness or well-being for quite some time, in more recent years organizations and individuals have become more thoughtful and more holistic about the kinds of behaviors that are important and have an influence on wellness. Just as many experts have moved away from measuring BMI as a sole or primary measure of health, more progressive well-being program designs, and the supporting activities that are measured, have moved beyond just step counting, (remember the first manual pedometer you received from the benefits department in 2002?), and have embraced measures of diet, sleep, stress and more to begin to shape a more complete view of well-being.

Individual and Group Outcomes

Employee engagement remains an important challenge for HR and business leaders and keeping people engaged with wellness and well-being programs is a common challenge for organizations as well. Some of the more successful organizations have thought about this challenge as an opportunity to try and connect people in the organization and foster a social and open approach to well-being. Rather than taking the punitive approaches of the past, which often involved penalties or increased employee costs for non-participation in well-being activities, these organizations try to inspire and encourage the positive elements of well-being and make it more of a fundamental element of the organizational culture. As I recall one speaker mention at the Thrive Summit, “people don’t like being told what is good for them”, the progressive organizations are designing well-being programs and encouraging participation with an eye towards the individual and organizational benefits – not the punishments or penalties for sitting on the sidelines.

Organizational Health

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Typically, the next set of metrics or data points that have been utilized to measure the success and impact of wellness and well-being programs are the “health” kinds of impacts: think medical claims costs and trends, absences due to illness, on-the-job injury rates and overall program engagement trends. While these can be important measures and are often the stated goals of well-being programs, if they do not immediately trend in the right direction, then the well-being programs will be seen as unsuccessful. Or, even if they are trending the right way, it still seems like the overall impact is seen as not as significant as deeper, or more far-reaching business benefits can be. Said differently, if the only measurable return on investment of a well-being program is reduced medical claims costs, the organization could have simply made medical plan adjustments, increased employee contribution or changed some other elements of the program to drive cost reductions. For well-being to truly take hold, there has to be more than just cost reduction for the organization.

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The last element of the well-being program design that has become more important for organizations is the connection from well-being to business outcomes. For some time, HR and benefits leaders have been able to draw a clear line between improved employee wellness and well-being and specific wellness/health outcomes like medical claims data. But the next frontier is connecting or correlating wellness outcomes to business outcomes like improved productivity, increased revenue, and enhanced employee and team performance. And the key to making these connections is having the right technology platforms and services that can facilitate the kinds of analysis needed to make these impacts clear to the CEO.

For wellness or well-being programs to truly have the transformational impact that they have often promised, they have to truly be programs, i.e., not simply one-off fitness or weight-loss challenges that once complete, are usually forgotten, and their long-term benefits small to nonexistent. From listening to the organizations that are realizing more sustained and measurable benefits from well-being programs, it is key that the business value of these programs is a primary driver and motivation which keeps the organization’s leaders engaged and helps its employees see more clearly how their participation and activity not only helps them as individuals, but contributes to an overall culture and climate of health and well-being. And the right technology is of course a key – it is the glue that ties the various elements of the program together, allows participants to engage with their own well-being, (and each other), and perhaps most importantly for HR and business leaders, helps show the link between well-being and business outcomes – the challenge that has plagued the wellness industry for ages.

Steve Boese, HR Tech Conference chair
Steve Boese
Steve Boese is HRE's Inside HR Tech columnist and chair of HRE’s HR Technology Conference®. He also writes a blog and hosts the HR Happy Hour Show, a radio program and podcast.