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Selling Corporate Wellness: How Wellness Professionals Save Profit While Improving Lives

What health and wellness initiatives afford the largest client base access, combined with the financial incentive to companies for investment, and present the opportunity to improve the lives of potentially hundreds or thousands of people?  The answer?…the ever-popular concept of corporate-led wellness.

The idea of “Corporate Wellness” is no longer a fringe or niche area.  In 2008, 58% of U.S. employers offered wellness programs; in 2015, that number had already climbed to 70%.[1]  Another survey found that about three-quarters of HR professionals said that their organizations provided a wellness program in some form or another.[2]  This same survey group also found that nearly two-thirds of those businesses surveyed indicated that the wellness efforts were “somewhat” or “very” effective in reducing healthcare costs.  The health and well-being of employees has already taken firm root in global business and is trending at an increasing rate.  Health is as integral to a successful business as technical training and advertising.

Fortunately for the humanitarian element in holistic-minded health professionals, profitability and health are also integral parts.  In recent years, numerous studies have been conducted that explain and analyze the huge and exciting potential of wellness programs to increase productivity (profit), reduce absenteeism, presenteeism (working while sick), improve workplace morale, and save company healthcare expense.

Unwell Employees are Expensive

In a June 2009 issue of the “Journal of Business and Economics Research”, Paul and Ann Carruth cite a rather shocking statistic from the United States Chamber of Commerce: in 2002, businesses paid an average of $6,300 per employee for medical benefits.[3]  In this same issue the authors share yet more alarming information: unhealthy employees can also impose indirect costs that are anywhere from two to three times the direct medical cost.  These expenses often manifest themselves as either absenteeism, presenteeism, medical cost, or lost productivity. For the interest of the health and wellness professional, that is a vast number of people who experience unnecessary suffering.  In a business environment, employee suffering costs.  For the health professional, this presents a financial incentive to companies as an outlet to improving the lives of countless people.  Even a small improvement in a person’s health, as small as a 1% reduction in excess weight, can save $83-$103 annually per person.[4]  For companies with hundreds, thousands, or even those with just a few employees, this can quickly become a positive return on investment with the fantastic byproduct of improved human life and a reduction in disease.

Absenteeism & Presenteeism

Absenteeism is self-explanatory.  In this category, illness or physical impairment is severe enough to completely remove the employee from the workplace.  The Centers for Disease Control reports that the costs associated with absenteeism alone cost employers $225.8 billion annually in the U.S.[5]  This equates to a cost of $1,685 per employee.

Presenteeism, a fairly recently-coined term referring to going to work sick or working while afflicted with a chronic disease or condition, is another issue that directly impacts a company’s bottom line.  According to Paul Hemp from the Harvard Business Review, presenteeism costs $150-$250 billion, or 60% of the total cost of worker illness.[6]It is important to properly identify and define presenteeism; it is not merely going to work sick, as with a seasonal cold or flu, but refers specifically to chronic illnesses and ailments that persist for prolonged periods of time. Allergies, diabetes, headaches, migraines, stress disorders, and sleep disorders being prime examples.  Even thinking anecdotally, if you consider even a subtle 10% reduction in an employee’s output, this equates the unfathomable loss in the long-term.  Consider, for a moment, what this number implies: just how many people trapped within the cages of chronic conditions are represented by $150-$250 billion losses?  Limited even to a single chronic issue, depression, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported a cost to U.S. employers of $35 billion a year.[7]Headaches, arthritis, and back problems cost an additional $47 billion.

One of the variables impossible to calculate is the increased burdens shared on employees that are present.  When an essential employee is absent, the work either goes undone or, often, is simply added to a present employee’s workload.  The added stress, constraints, or even lack of familiarity and skill with the new work also possesses the potential for financial costs, to say nothing for workplace morale and the health of the other employees.

All this information, while seemingly dreary and negative, presents a unique opportunity to explain the financial profitability of the health and wellness professional.  Even better, this financial aspect exists in tandem with an improved level of health

and happiness for employees.  In effect, and with a properly-run program, a company investing in the health and wellness of its employees does not simply cost nothing, but can improve the company’s bottom line, all while opening a new avenue for professionals to improve the lives of thousands.

The Advantages of Lifestyle Management & Disease Management Programs

When a professional health and wellness expert is included into the financial equations concerning absenteeism and presenteeism, the facts turn in a very different, and welcome, direction.

An article in the Harvest Business Review found a 57% decrease in high-risk employees at the end of a six-month program, as well as a $1,421 decline in medical claim costs per participant.[8]  In this particular study, every dollar invested in health and wellness earned $6.  This study made no attempt to differentiate lifestyle management and disease management aspects of the program.

An important distinction to draw here is that the principal return on investment (ROI) for companies is not the same for all wellness programs when the program is observed as two entities: lifestyle management initiatives and disease management.  As is the case most often in large-scale corporate wellness programs, the program is divided into two focuses:

Lifestyle Management Initiatives: This approach attempts to improve long-term health and wellness outcomes through modification of lifestyle in the present.  It also attempts to delay the onset of chronic disease and focuses on lifestyle choices like alcohol use, tobacco use, bodyweight abnormalities, exercise, and nutrition.

Disease Management Programs: This approach offers short-term improvements in management of chronic disease to improve short-term and long-term health outcomes with little focus on lifestyle alteration. It also focuses on people who already have chronic issues like diabetes and attempts to utilize self-care and adherence to existing treatment plans.

Of these two approaches, disease management programs have demonstrated far superior cost-saving features time and again.

In a study conducted for PepsiCo over a seven-year period, disease management programs were estimated to have saved the company $3.78 per dollar invested.[9]  Compare that to the 48 cents saved on average per dollar invested by the lifestyle management component.

The disease management program also reduced healthcare costs by $136 per member per month, the result of a 29% reduction in hospital admissions.  Of particular note, however, is the 66% reduction in hospital admission by those employees who enrolled in both programs.  For the wellness professional, keeping people out of hospital-level health concerns is of paramount importance and the value of this was impossible to determine due to the brief nature of the study.  Seven years is a prolonged period of time for most studies, but compared to the span of a human life, especially the latter years of life when medical issues arise most often, this study cannot accurately demonstrate the true long-term benefits of lifestyle management.

Another study, this one conducted by the RAND Corporation, followed 600,000 workers from seven different companies.  This study concluded that lifestyle and disease management together reduced employer’s average healthcare costs by around $30 per member per month.  Of this, 87% of the savings came from disease management.[10]  To state it another way, the overall ROI on the program was $1.50 for every dollar invested; in isolation, the disease management portion resulted in $3.80 for every dollar invested.  In many respects, the lifestyle program pulled the average down.

With only 13% enrollment in the disease management portion, imagine the huge potential impact of a modified disease management program that is easier to enroll in, provides incentives, and also addresses the higher ROI aspects of lifestyle management.

The Opportunity for the Wellness Professional

Woven between all the facts, figures, and jargon is the opportunity of a lifetime career for wellness experts and medical fitness professionals.  There is a gigantic gap not only in lifestyle management programs, but more specifically in disease management programs at businesses all over the world.  Designing and implementing employee wellness programs would not only help the business itself, but more importantly for the health expert, would allow a conduit to help improve the lives of potentially thousands of people simultaneously.  Such open access to so many clients is a dream come true, presenting the opportunity to exercise our skills in a humanitarian fashion while being able to paint ourselves not as an expensive tool or a simple loss to a business, but as a business asset.  All this while simply helping people to feel better, be happier, and live healthier.

Shane Caraway CHN, CPT, PTSP, uses his education, experience, and credentials as a certified personal trainer and nutritionist to help others recapture the primitive mystique, strength, and beauty that their body is capable of. His greatest pleasure comes from the successes of his clients, no matter how mundane or simple each small victory may be. Always in pursuit of various techniques, compounds, nutrients, herbs, and other means to help support the body against disease, Shane finds the challenge of combating chronic disease to be the pinnacle of his work, especially with diseases and conditions that otherwise cause clients to surrender.


[1] 2008, 58% of U.S. employers offered wellness programs; in 2015, that number had already climbed to 70% [FORBES]










MFN Contributing Author