Although they have been on the scene for 30-some years, corporate wellness programs are evolving from being a nice, “new agey” thing to do to an increasingly popular business strategy that can drastically reduce a company's healthcare costs and improve employee productivity and retention. Such programs are being embraced by large corporations, such as IBM, Google and Safeway, as well as by smaller companies. “The workplace is where you can reach the most people to change behavior and help them improve their health,” said Iris Sokol, president and founder of Fitness Works at Work, a pioneer in developing corporate fitness, health and wellness programs. “And many programs also allow families to participate, so you are not just reaching the employees.”

The corporate wellness programs in existence today are as diverse as the companies they serve. Some offer changes as simple as providing healthier snacks in vending machines, while others go all out with full blown models featuring onsite fitness centers, nutrition and health experts, ongoing education and assessment, and incentives to participate. The metrics for calculating the true effectiveness of corporate wellness initiatives can be difficult to come by; but, as corporate healthcare costs continue to rise, many companies are proving willing to take a chance on programs designed to give their employees a health boost.

Serious Savings

Statistics on the value of wellness programs to healthcare costs and prevention are increasingly compelling. For example, a meta-analysis of workplace disease prevention and wellness programs, conducted by Harvard University School of Public Health researchers, found that for every dollar spent on wellness, medical costs dropped by $3.27 and absenteeism costs dropped by $2.73. Another study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in April 2009 reported that workers with low health risks cost their employers $1,472 annually in lost productivity, while those with three health risks cost $5,952 in lost productivity. Researchers estimated that if 100 employees reduced one risk, it would save nearly $150,000 in productivity.

Such potential savings are helping to fuel the expansion of corporate wellness programs across the United States. Sokol, who has been implementing corporate wellness programs since 1982, said that, despite the down economy, she is seeing an explosion of interest because companies are starting to see the upside. “The potential of wellness programs involving diet, lifestyle, exercise and nutrition can provide strong ROI for companies to reduce absenteeism and improve presenteeism,” added Jay Udani, MD, CEO of Medicus Research and assistant clinical professor of UCLA School of Medicine. These initiatives can also help as companies re-structure and the economy affects jobs. “People now have less opportunity to take time off when they are sick or in pain,” Udani said. “So there is a big opportunity to try and keep people well and improve their quality of life so that they can perform at a higher level in the workplace.”