Employee wellness programmes have multiple benefits, both for employers and their employees, if it is well designed and effectively managed. In fact, there is no question that the health and wellness of employees is a critical component of a thriving workplace, but the key is in evaluating what the actual business benefits of employee wellness programmes are.
Prior to investing in employee health promotion, employers are encouraged to consider how their efforts will be measured, monitored, and evaluated. More importantly, they need to define the financial and non-financial objectives, target specific health risk conditions, and set employee wellness programme objectives that align with the organisation’s human capital management strategy.
Rather than holding employee wellness programmes up as an employer of choice initiative, organisations should reposition them as human capital development strategies. Poorly designed initiatives usually focus on “flavour-of-the-month activities” that rightfully create awareness and educate employees, but it fail to address specific organisational risks, or to capitalise on any organisation development opportunities. As a result senior executives become sceptical about the actual value of employee wellness programmes. They want to analyse the cost and calculate the return on investment (ROI) and the net present value (NPV) of employee wellness programmes. For them, it is important to quantify the effectiveness of disease, pre-disease, health, and wellness management in relation to the medical and economic cost that include aspects such as productivity, turnover, replacements, absenteeism, and presenteeism cost. Basically, senior executives want to follow an outcome-based approach that address specific regions, population groups, health risk conditions, and job functions in order to measure the impact of the interventions and their effectiveness on various diseases or health risk conditions. In fairness, they are looking for the evidence—as well as the link—between financial investment and improved work performance.
Before implementing an employee wellness programme, and from a strategic human capital management perspective, organisations should first endeavour to develop a proper business case for employee wellness. In developing the business case, successful employee wellness programmes set out to determine what the burden of disease for their workforce is. With health risk assessments that are usually conducted at the annual wellness-day, employers aim to determine what the health risk prevalence and incidence of the organisation's workforce are. The intention is to determine the health status of employees, but much more can be gained from these assessments.
Health risk assessments typically measure and report lifestyle indicators such as physical activity, nutrition and diet, body fat, sleep patterns, and clinical preventative biometric measures that include, for example, blood sugar and cholesterol levels. This management information is then used to help the organisation determine the collective or organisational health risk. However, the organisation's ability to predict future disease risks, and of course, to calculate the ROI and NPV for specific wellness and disease management interventions are still lacking. More advanced organisations accurately access the immediate and the future health risks of employees, as well as measure and manage the probability and severity of these adverse effects. With the use of innovative health risk assessments and predictive analytics, they translate large quantities of wellness and disease management information into business intelligence and actionable insights. By understanding the financial and non-financial (business) risks, and the potential rewards related to employee wellness, organisations are able to manage it more effectively as a business imperative.
Both the health risk conditions and the costs associated with the health risks of employees are important sets of management information. To determine the wellness programme objectives, organisations first need to identify the health risks of employees and similarly, determine the high, medium, and low risk population groups. Secondly, they need to forecast what the medical and economic costs for each risk group could be. When employee health risks are accurately assessed and monetised, appropriate wellness and disease management interventions target specific organisational outcomes.
When employers take more control over health risk assessment data and the recording and reporting of their employee wellness and disease management information, they are better positioned to determine the impact of their management interventions. The more sophisticated the wellness and disease management information is, the more advanced the predictions are that the organisation will be able to make about the future onset of pre-disease and disease, as well as the various pathogenic stages of diseases, aiming to deliver cost effective, targeted, and appropriate interventions. The real value of the appropriate use of wellness and disease management information lies in the fact that the organisation can better manage and control disease morbidity and its associated costs. Furthermore, by understanding the different stages of disease development, organisations are able to effectively manage the impact of the identified occupational and non-occupational diseases. Management intervention, and more specifically the employee wellness programme, should then be utilised to tolerate, terminate, transfer, or treat employee health risks towards an acceptable level.
In these instances, the intention is to focus on employee health and organisational risk mitigation strategies that prevent and treat health risks, pre-disease, and disease, as well as promote employee health and wellness. These organisations adopt a combination of curative (disease management), preventative, and health promotion (wellness management) interventions. In addition, well-executed programmes use wellness and disease management software to help with data gathering, predictive analytics, document control, and to manage absences and claims effectively.
By enabling employees to feel good and to function well at work, best-practice employee wellness programmes add significant value to the performance, quality of life, and longevity of employees. In this regard, we should consider the difference between the consumption of health care services and an investment in employee wellness or health promotion. For example, when a temporary health condition such as a neck pain is treated and resolved at the onsite clinic, this treatment does not contribute to the employee’s longevity. But when employees change their lifestyle or manage their health risk appropriately, and their life expectancy increases as a result, and the benefits of the employee wellness programme produce compounding effects from one term to the next. Furthermore, when employee wellness programmes incorporate wellness coaching that focuses on the development of employee engagement, resilience, self-efficacy, agility, hope, and optimism, it also supports the development of the emotional and social wellness of employees. For this reason, organisations should follow a dual process by managing the health risks and the wellness of employees. This means that a true investment in employee wellness will always mitigate health risks and prevent disease but, more importantly, also promote the overall health, longevity, and wellness of employees.
By embracing a holistic, integrated wellness and disease management approach, enlightened organisations broaden their views on human capital management and the extent to which it supports, creates, and promotes business value over time. When the health of employees is compromised, either by the employer's misconduct or by the employee's own doing, it is to be expected that the organisation's risks will also increase, promoting the probability of actual harm or loss to the organisation. These organisational risks can be accurately measured in the organisational performance and the medical and economic costs of the organisation. In contrast, when the health and wellness of employees is valued and promoted through appropriate management interventions, it appreciates in value. With a robust employee wellness and disease management programme in place, organisations can commit to help those employees who are sick better manage their health, prevent those who are at-risk from developing costly chronic conditions, and support the healthy to be well.
Dr Dicky Els is an Employee Wellness Consultant who specialises predominantly in wellness and disease management strategy development, programme design, and the evaluation of outcome-based health promotion programmes.