HR focuses on bottom line of wellness

Surprisingly, finance more concerned with moral responsibility

It appears that after years of being told to think strategically and focus on business outcomes, HR managers have finally gotten the message. In a study that examined why accountants, general managers and HR managers support work site wellness programs, both the accountants and the general managers cited a moral responsibility to employees as one of the main deciding factors. HR managers, on the other hand, were more motivated by the bottom-line outcome of the programs.

“I was actually shocked,” said Angela Downey, an associate professor at the University of Lethbridge’s faculty of management in Lethbridge, Alta., and one of the study’s co-authors.

“I was amazed to find out that for the human resources managers the moral responsibility of it all didn’t even show up on their radar. It was not something they were concerned about. In fact what was driving them, and what was driving senior operations management, was outcomes and costs.”

The study of 153 accountants, general managers and HR managers in Ontario’s auto parts industry found accountants were motivated by their perceived moral responsibility towards employees and their ability to control discretionary spending. Surprisingly, cost-reduction outcomes of wellness programs didn’t play a significant role.

On the other hand, general managers were motivated by a mix of bottom-line impact and moral responsibility. HR managers were mostly motivated by the bottom-line impact of wellness programs (51 per cent), as well as their ability to control spending (25 per cent).

Wellness guru Ed Buffett wasn’t surprised by HR’s focus on cost savings.

“There are exceptions to every rule, but certainly what we’re seeing is that successful organizations have figured out that a healthy workplace really does result in a much stronger esprit de corps within the workplace, less absenteeism, higher productivity, fewer new open long-term disability claims, less incidental absenteeism and so forth. It’s those drivers that are really causing people to really look at wellness these days,” said Buffett, president and CEO of Whitby, Ont.-based Buffett & Company Worksite Wellness.

Instead of focusing on the altruistic aspects of the programs, HR needs to present a business case if it wants to get buy-in from the organization’s higher ups, he said.

“When you’re doing the quarterly earning results, you better have more than warm and fuzzy stuff to substantiate your program in the longer haul,” he said. “If you’ve got results that speak for themselves, you can certainly anticipate a much longer life of your wellness programs.”

But Downey doesn’t think HR is effectively measuring wellness programs’ return on investment.

“I’m still not sure they’re capturing metrics in their systems that they can take to the top and say, ‘Here’s what we saved by doing this last month.’ I don’t think those metrics are getting into the system yet,” she said.

Buffett’s own findings bear this out. According to the National Wellness Survey 2006, a survey conducted every three years by Buffett & Company, only 29.6 per cent of organizations consistently evaluate the outcomes of wellness initiatives and only 18.6 per cent do a return-on-investment analysis.

While the cost savings is an important factor of any wellness program, there should be some moral responsibility on the part of HR when designing and promoting wellness programs, said Downey.

“Employees are an asset that’s irreplaceable for the most part,” she said. “We should be doing what we can do to maintain them. We have a responsibility as we consume their lives in our workplace to maintain their health — mental, spiritual, emotional and physiological.”

Downey would like to see the government get involved. While there is extensive evidence these programs reduce health-care costs and improve employee productivity, corporations, not the government, bear the costs of these programs while the health-care system and society at large reap the benefits, she said.

“The government needs to realize that health promotion and wellness is one way of directing some attention to a preventative nature in our health-care system. And they need to start looking at corporate Canada as a partner in this and doing things that will help corporate Canada motivate people to be involved in their own health, to take some responsibility for their own well-being.”

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