Workplace Culture

Wondering About Wellness

By Sarah Sipek

Jun. 30, 2014

The anticipated annual spike in health care costs once again has employers struggling with the longstanding question of where to trim expenses, and this year could mark a trend of putting wellness programs under that budgetary microscope.

Dr. Robert Galvin, CEO of Equity Healthcare and the former chief medical officer at General Electric Co., said to balance the budget, companies must be more discerning in allocating resources. That, he said, begins with putting an end to ineffective health initiatives. At the top of Galvin’s list are employee wellness programs. 

“Wellness programs don’t save money,” Galvin said. “They’re not effective. You may be able to influence employee behavior at work, but at the end of the day they’re going to drive out into the world where McDonald’s and KFC exist. The impact doesn’t match the cost.”

Nico Pronk, vice president and chief science officer at Health Partners, a nonprofit HMO, disagrees.

‘You may be able to influence employee behavior at work, but at the end of the day they’re going to drive out into the world where McDonald’s and KFC exist.’

—Dr. Robert Galvin, Equity Healthcare

“Workplace wellness programs are not expensive in the first place,” Pronk said. “If you compare the price of putting these programs in place compared to health care, it really is a drop in the bucket.”

An often-cited 2010 Harvard University research paper, “Workplace Wellness Programs Can Generate Savings,” found that medical costs decrease by $3.27 for every dollar spent on wellness programs. 

Pronk said he believes the recent controversy surrounding the effectiveness of wellness programs is due, in part, to overly general surveys that don’t account for the quality of the wellness program.

“When you consider statistics like 90 percent of all companies in the United States have a wellness program, that really reflects a survey approach that says, ‘As an employer, do you do anything in wellness?’ ” Pronk said. “If the answer is yes, then you have a wellness program.”

These poor research methods result in the collection of faulty data, Pronk said. 

“It’s comparing a wellness program that is designed according to best-practice principles to a newsletter program,” Pronk said. “Those two are clearly different, and I think that those differences really matter.”

Effective programs, Pronk said, incorporate the following nine dimensions: comprehensiveness; compliance; communication; data-driven; engagement; implementation; leadership; partnership; and relevance.

“These programs generate very good value for the employer, and they tend to reduce the impact of health care costs and have a return on investment that is not only linked to health care costs but to other valuable outcomes,” Pronk said.

Sarah Sipek is a Workforce associate editor.

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