Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Is there really ROI in wellness programs?

I had the pleasure of joining the CoHealth Checkup Podcast today as a visiting co-host, trying in vain to replace the brilliant, rapier-witted Fran Melmed. And while Fran could never really be replaced, I very much enjoyed chatting with her regular (and equally talented) co-host, Carol Harnett

The biggest treat, though, was being able to put our esteemed guest - Ron Kessler, professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School - through his paces. For those who aren't familiar with his work, he's one of the worlds foremost experts in population mental health and in workplace health interventions. 

Kessler’s research deals broadly with the social determinants of mental health and illness as studied from an epidemiological perspective. He is the author of over 600 publications and the recipient of many awards for his research, including the Senior Scientist and MERIT awards from the National Institute of Mental Health. He has been rated as the most widely cited researcher in the world in the field of psychiatry for each of the past ten years and is a member of both the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences. 
 - Harvard Medical School Department of Health Care Policy 
In addition to that august body of work, Ron is also a very down-to-earth guy ... and a guy who's not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom.  Here are just a few gems from the call.  I'm paraphrasing him here, but this is pretty radical stuff:

  • "Cutting wellness programs is not the answer to profitability - but you can be more targeted."
  • "Focusing on SAFETY issues in the workplace may produce more ROI than wellness programs." 
  • "Flu shots have become the most common form of prevention on the part of employers. But in many cases they don't actually produce ROI."
  • "Should my company be investing in well-being programs for my employees? Not Necessarily."
  • "Employers need to run their own 'clinical trials' to see what benefits are most valuable"
  • "Sleep interventions can have a dramatic impact on workplace accidents & may be the least-leveraged source of ROI in wellness-program dollars"
  • "25M Americans are sleep-deprived at work right now."
The one that knocked my socks off is a direct quote:
There's a likelihood that focusing on employee well-being at companies like the SAS Institute and Google will work, but it will probably fail at other companies.We're simply not good yet at understanding how to foster positive well-being. - Ron Kessler in Creating an Employee Benefits Framework by Carol Harnett (Human Resource Executive Online, January 16, 2012)
There are some great lessons here for people who're playing in the wellness space ... the kind of things that'll make you sound smart the next time you talk to your executive committee about the wellness dollars you want to spend.  That's always relevant, but especially at this time of year.
To get the story straight from the horse's mouth, check out the full half-hour podcast below:

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