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Opinion: Corporate wellness retooling emphasizes retention

Industry Insight

Posted online

The effectiveness of corporate wellness programs is being questioned by businesses, health professionals and many wellness practitioners. Business leaders question the return on investment. Health professionals are frustrated that programs have not “moved the needle” as much as anticipated.

At the Wellness Council of America’s National Summit in August, the evolution of corporate wellness was evident. Although the exact pathway is not yet crafted, there is beginning to be a balance between the traditional methods of health risk assessments and physical fitness with nutrition and incentives toward a fresh direction.

Frankly, the wellness effort over the past several decades has had trouble measuring consistent credible return on investment. Many businesses have pegged their programs toward impacting health care costs and premiums. This approach has proved problematic with the rising costs of health care and premiums, plus a mobile workforce. Others have compared their employees overall health risks – using biometric screening – against averages, another difficult measurement.

Many nontraditional advocates of wellness think a major knock on the traditional incentive program is that it leaves some employees feeling targeted and disempowered. They contend it’s an invitation to put up your hand if you would like part of the problem to be fixed. As usual, when evolution occurs, the attack on the traditional or status quo is likely partially valid, but it is really a signal that the approach needs to be balanced and adjusted.

One thing is clear, the field and programming of corporate wellness is evolving from an ROI strategy to an employee attraction and retention proposition. This change signifies that additional thoughts, tools and techniques are needed.

Some of the new trends and practices include focusing on the built environment. An example of this is the Well Building Standard. This new certification focuses on the air, water, light, comfort, fitness and nourishment available to inhabitants of our workplaces.

Another popular new approach includes engaging employees in their life’s purpose. This normally involves training and tools to help employees craft a purpose and therefore an understanding of why it’s important to be healthy and productive.

A Denver area school district determined their teachers were far more interested in the success of the school’s students than their own health. The wellness initiative changed focus. In order for teachers to do their best for students, the teachers needed to improve their own health. This included improvements on mental clarity and physical endurance.

Another very prevalent advance in many programs includes more of a focus on appreciation and gratitude. This “culture shift” approach is really gaining momentum in the wellness field. Employees who feel empowered and who appreciate one another are much more likely to improve their own health. Many statistics indicate this approach and focus is producing financial results.

The overwhelming shift is that the ROI strategy is fraught with complexity and does not develop significant trust with employees. It’s not that there isn’t ROI in wellness programs; it’s just that it’s hard to measure and it promotes “fixing a problem” thinking.

The evolved “attraction and retention” focus involves creating physical environments, policies, systems and procedures in a company that develops trust and appreciation. It’s a shift that’s gaining traction. Even the financially focused leader/manager can buy into attracting talented employees and retaining them.

Richard Ollis is CEO of Ollis/Akers/Arney, an employee-owned business consulting and insurance advisory firm. He also serves on the Wellness Council of America National Board. He can be reached at


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