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Executive Summary

Making the Business Case for Investments in Workplace Health and Wellness

by Louise Chenier, Crystal Hoganson and Karla Thorpe

As organizations struggle to remain competitive in an environment of constraint, there is unprecedented pressure to justify spending on all programs. Although senior leaders may know intuitively that spending on wellness initiatives is an investment in the health and productivity of the labour force, wellness practitioners must increasingly be prepared to demonstrate the direct benefit to the business in order to protect those investments.

The overarching purpose of this project is to provide organizations of all sizes—small, medium, and large—with advice on how to make the business case for investing in workplace health and wellness programs.

The report is based on an extensive literature review, a series of 10 in-depth case study interviews with employers of various sizes from a wide spectrum of sectors, and 13 key informant interviews with experts in health promotion, workplace wellness, and evaluation. 

The results of the case study interviews will be published separately in a series of briefings, collectively titled Wellness Metrics in Action: A Spotlight on Employers. Each briefing outlines the organization’s wellness programs and the methods that the organization uses to evaluate its initiatives. These briefings provide invaluable information and guidance for employers that are trying to measure the impact of their own health and wellness initiatives. 

The study was sponsored by Standard Life, Ceridian Canada, Homewood Human Solutions, Medavie Blue Cross, Mercer, Pfizer Canada, Sanofi Canada, TELUS Health Solutions, and the Canadian Alliance for Sustainable Health Care at The Conference Board of Canada. 

Employers should invest in workplace wellness programs because it makes financial sense to do so. Investments in health and wellness programs can lead to reduced benefits costs, reduced absenteeism, reduced presenteeism, and higher productivity. These cost savings are often used to demonstrate the positive impacts of wellness programs on an organization’s bottom line. A successful workplace wellness program can also help build an organization’s profile as a socially responsible employer of choice, improving its ability to attract new talent and retain existing talent. Employers also need to keep in mind that such programs can help them fulfill their legal duty to create and maintain a safe and healthy workplace for their employees. 

Calculating the return on investment for wellness programming is essential, yet less than 1 per cent of employers analyze the ROI in a rigorous way.

A comprehensive wellness program should include the following five essential elements:

  • senior management commitment;
  • a benchmark or baseline;
  • wellness programming related to business needs;
  • follow-up with participating employees; and
  • an evaluation of the program and initiatives.

Wellness programming and resources to help employees maintain or improve their health are important, but so is ensuring the organization has a healthy organizational culture and healthy physical work environment.

Calculating the return on investment (ROI) for wellness programming is an essential element since it allows the organization to determine the financial benefits of the investments and can help sustain health and wellness programs in the face of competing organizational priorities. However, employers are still at the infancy stages when it comes to evaluating wellness programs. Although about a third of employers measure program outcomes, very few (less than 1 per cent) analyze the ROI of wellness programs in a rigorous way. Organizations are currently more focused on demonstrating positive impacts and outcomes than a positive ROI, and this is generally sufficient to satisfy senior leaders.

The return on investment is an economic evaluation that measures savings (or profits) against program expenditures (capital invested). Calculating ROI is deceptively simple, but often the individual cost and savings components can be difficult to quantify. 

Employers struggle with measuring the ROI of wellness programs for many reasons. They often don’t have access to the right data or have difficulty integrating data from various services providers. They may also lack the staff, resources, and expertise needed to con-duct a proper program evaluation, including measuring the ROI. And often the impacts from investments in wellness initiatives are intangible, subjective, and difficult to link directly to the wellness program itself.

The ability of an employer to show a positive return on investments in workplace health and wellness will depend on the type of programming offered. For example, employers that hold a single lunch-and-learn wellness session may see employee awareness of health increase, but they are unlikely to be able to generate significant savings for the organization. Employers whose programs are more targeted, integrated, and comprehensive will see the most significant returns on their investment.

For those employers that are ready to embark on calculating a formal ROI, this report outlines a variety of tools and metrics to help demonstrate the impacts and outcomes of investing in health and wellness initiatives. These include a metrics checklist, some sample calculations, an ROI worksheet, and a hypothetical example of an ROI calculation.

Employer focus on evaluating the outcomes of investing in health and wellness has grown steadily over the past few years—albeit from a very low level. It is our belief that this trend toward greater accountability will continue. As employers move toward wellness programs that are more comprehensive, the ability of health and wellness practitioners to demonstrate the ROI from these invest-ments—and the onus on them to do so—will increase. Wellness practitioners have no reason to fear calculating ROI: If programs are correctly targeted to the health conditions most prevalent in the workforce, the financial return to employers will most certainly be positive.

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Louise Chénier Louise Chénier
Research Associate, Human Resources Management Research
Crystal Hoganson
Crystal Hoganson
Research Associate, Public Policy
Karla Thorpe Karla Thorpe
Director, Leadership and Human Resources Research 

Read the Full Report

The Canadian Health Care Debate report coverProvides guidance on how to demonstrate the impacts of investments in health and wellness.