In my recently published article entitled “The Case for Wellness”, I presented the benefits for fully insured employers to implement effective corporate wellness programs. Some of the feedback I received focused on that descriptor, “effective”, which is worth addressing. Since it has been a hot topic in the press, many organizational leaders need more clarity to move forward in improving their worksite wellness. They need to know if workplace wellness programs are effective – and if not, why not?

At Engagement Health Group, our premium corporate wellness programs deliver measurable results that improve employee health and well-being to enhance your organization’s ROIs.

Are Corporate Wellness Programs Effective?  

There are dozens of peer-reviewed studies that have been published about very effective corporate wellness programs. However, other studies, notably the 2013 Rand study, claim that most workplace wellness programs are not effective. Is this the conundrum? Not really. Some corporate wellness programs are effective (and worthy of case studies), but most are not. I think it’s just a sign that, though worksite wellness has been around for over three decades now and has become a $6B industry, it is apparent that most employers are still just testing the waters.

A recent survey found that 90% of employers with over 50 employees now have corporate wellness programs. However, many just have the “free” virtual resources (hyperlink to the updated Fully Insured blog) from the carrier such as a nurse call line, an HRA, a self-help portal – and possibly a health coaching line. Less than 7% of employers have comprehensive, systematic programs that are achieving significant results. And many of those are very large employers with teams of dedicated health management professionals on their staff or on assignment from various health management partners.

Surveys indicate that many corporate wellness programs are not even measuring effectiveness, much less achieving it. In fact, it appears that many employers don’t care. They just want to check the box for having a workplace wellness program, and they don’t particularly care if it’s effective or not. Therefore, our nation has a long way to go to implement effective corporate wellness programs. If this were not true, there would not be a health crisis and you probably would not be reading this!

Where Are Most Employers in Terms of Effective Worksite Wellness?

Many employers have started, but it’s a journey that a lot of organizations have barely begun. Most of us in the worksite wellness field know about Prochaska’s model describing the five stages of change that people make when progressing from an unhealthy habit to a healthy habit. These stages of change are shown in the figure below.

It turns out that organizations also go through these stages of change when implementing effective corporate wellness programs and they’re much the same. The argument could be made that most organizations are in the Maintenance Stage – since it seems like worksite wellness is here to stay.

However, Prochaska’s model describes stages of behavior change. Worksite wellness that does not change behavior to improve employee health is not addressed by Prochaska’s model. It is just window dressing. When looking at stages of real “behavior-changing” wellness, I would argue that the vast majority of programs are in stages 1-3, because they have not implemented corporate wellness programs that are effectively building healthy habits among the majority of their employees. Very few have reached the Maintenance Stage where healthy behaviors are an integral part of the organizational culture – and health risks and health costs are under control.

What Is the Problem?

There’s not just one problem, and there’s no one “magic bullet” solution. There are many issues. However, the buck stops with organizational leadership. They either care about employee health or they don’t. They either know what to do or they don’t. If we show that as blocks in the table below, it helps explain why there is not enough “wellness that works.” Only one group of leaders care about employees and knows what to do to address employee health. 

Red Zone. It starts with having leadership that cares about employee health. Without that, wellness doesn’t matter. If leadership doesn’t care about the employees that are the most valuable asset of their organization, they are in the red zone and have a much bigger problem than most wellness experts are equipped to address. It is doubtful that these organizations will have much success with worksite wellness – because a healthy culture is the best predictor of success, and they can’t possibly have a healthy culture if there is no mutual concern, respect, and trust. Most employees that work in the red zone won’t truly engage in their work, much less a corporate wellness program.

Green Zone. If leadership does care and knows what to do, we don’t need to be too concerned about anything besides cheering them on and learning from their example. These are the organizations that are writing case studies about impressive results and contributing to “best practices.”

Yellow Zone. If leadership cares but there’s not an effective corporate wellness program in place, they are in the yellow zone – and there are two probable causes:

1.     Leaders don’t realize the connection between employee health and organizational performance, or they may think other initiatives have a bigger impact on organizational performance – causing worksite wellness to take a back seat. A recent survey by the Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO) found that only one in five top leaders list employee health as a key driver of organizational performance without prompting. However, when asked if a sick or disabled workforce could hurt performance, they acknowledge that it would. So, they had not previously connected the dots – that a reduction in existing sickness and disability among their employees could significantly improve organizational performance! There have been some exciting studies by Dr. Ray Fabius and others that show how organizations that invest in a culture of employee health and safety have significantly outperformed the market. Effective promotion of findings like these will hopefully increase leadership commitment to worksite wellness.

2.     Leaders have connected the dots between employee health and organizational performance, but they don’t know what to do or how to begin. They don’t know how to justify, build, and lead an effective corporate wellness program. I have seen a lot of this and it’s no wonder. There’s a lot of noise about worksite wellness and many leaders don’t know where to turn. They would be tempted to turn to HR, but HR professionals in most organizations don’t have the answer. They might also expect to find the answer from the benefits brokers who serve most employers, but most of them have not been equipped to guide employers into human capital management with effective worksite wellness.

What Does NOT work?

Like it or not, most Americans like to learn the hard way. It’s just our culture. Studies have proven it! My mother used to say that if I didn’t learn something the hard way, I probably didn’t learn it. There are many organizations out there learning worksite wellness the hard way – by trial and error. 

Unfortunately, trying to learn effective worksite wellness by the process of elimination will never yield the desired results. Here’s why: We all know the tires alone don’t make a car. Nor does the transmission, the engine, the seats, or the electronics. It takes all of these components working together systematically to make vehicles that run – getting us from point A to point B in a safe, enjoyable manner. And that’s not counting a trained driver that knows how to get us where we need to go!

Likewise, offering individual health promotions such as Health Risk Assessments, health fairs, biometric screenings, gym discounts, nurse call lines, flu shots, exercise challenges, posters, health classes, health coaching, a wellness incentive plan, or even an onsite medical clinic cannot individually reduce employee health risks. An effective corporate wellness program is both comprehensive and systematic –  designed to meet the unique needs of each organization.


The bottom line is that most organizations need to set their sights on building an effective corporate wellness program. Employee health and wellbeing is worth doing, and it’s worth doing well. The success of your organization may depend on it!

Click here to read Part 2 of Corporate Wellness Programs That Work

About the author

Jack Curtis

Jack Curtis is Founder and CEO of Corporate Health Partners (2002) and Co-Founder and CEO of Engagement Health Group (2022). With an ongoing commitment to making a difference in corporate health and well-being, Jack enjoys his long-term membership and Leadership Committee chair position at an industry Think Tank of thought leaders within employee health management, called Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO).

Engagement Health Group