If you’re an employer in the United States, you should ask yourself: what should 50 billion dollars buy you? Workplace wellness programs are a 50 billion-dollar industry, but the value of these programs remains debatable (WSJ, 2/18/22). Currently, over 83% of employers who provide health care benefits are looking to wellness programs in the workplace as a strategy to improve the health of their employees and to lower their costs. If you need convincing (or reminding) that employers need to be fully engaged in employee wellness, here are some sobering statistics:

  • In 2021, employers paid, on average, $16,000 per employee per year for health insurance (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2021).
  • Illness related lost productivity equaled $530 billion in 2018 (Integrate Benefits Institute, 2018).
    • 893 million lost work day due absences (absenteeism)
    • 527 million lost work days due to impaired performance (presenteeism)
  • Health care costs continue to escalate, costing 3.7 trillion dollars per year. This cost is primarily driven by chronic disease that are rooted in unhealthy lifestyle choices, and could be prevented, managed or even reversed if people made healthy lifestyle choices (CDC, 2022).
  • The pandemic took a significant toll on the American workforce with worsening physical and mental health and workplace well-being (NIHCM Foundation, 2020).
  • Heathy workers are more engaged, more productive, more satisfied and more loyal to their workplace. (CDC, 2022; Global Wellness institute, 2022; Forbes, 2019).

While seeking wellness solutions in the workplace makes sense for employers, not all wellness programs are created equal. There is great variability in the quality of the programs offered, no standardization or regulation that employers can rely on when evaluating programs and no common agreement on their benefit. Since implementing workplace wellness programs is a significant financial, talent and time investment, the cost/benefit should be clear. UR Medicine Employee Wellness (UREW) offers a quality program that has consistently reported excellent population level clinical outcomes and can now, based on those metrics, demonstrates a substantial return on investment.

UR Medicine Employee Wellness (UREW) began providing services in 2012 to the University of Rochester. Since then, UREW has grown to become a premiere employee wellness company in western New York providing services to over 48,000 employees in 55 organizations in the region. Services have expanded and evolved to meet market needs and ongoing evaluation has demonstrated the success of the program in improving key health metrics, promoting healthy behavior change and reducing disease risk. In 2019, UREW conducted a 5-year retrospective study to measure change in cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk. CVD was chosen as the benchmark because it remains the costliest chronic disease in terms of morbidity, morality, disease burden and dollars spent. Key indicators of CVD risk were collected and analyzed based on the Framingham Risk Methodology (citation) for more than 16,000 employees who participated in UR wellness program for more than 1 year between January 2013 and December 2017. Data showed that 48% of participants with moderate to high risk cardiovascular risk at baseline, improved their cardiovascular disease risk at follow-up and that 33% improved a full risk category. This finding is unequalled in the industry, has important implications for improving the health and well-being of individuals and at-risk populations, and was published in a peer reviewed journal in 2019. (citation). Perhaps as important, UREW has now demonstrated a significant return on investment based on these remarkable clinical outcomes.

There are several ways to estimate return on investment, but often the data needed, such as insurance claims data, is not readily available. As an alternative, ROI can be extrapolated to a population based on the findings of a similar group. That was the approach taken by UREW.

In 2013, Krantz (citation) and colleagues presented their findings of a study in which they demonstrated, similar to UREW, a reduction in CVD risk for those individuals who participated in a wellness program. In a follow up study, Smith and colleagues (citation) applied a statistical model in which probabilities for a cardiac event(s) were calculated based on their CVD disease risk. (citation) These two studies, combined, provided the associated cost savings related to CVD risk score(s) for participating and non-participating individuals. Cost savings related to CVD risk scores were applied to reference cases for men and women who were at risk and not at risk for cardiac disease.

The UREW applied the reported costs from the Smith study to the UREW study population. The researchers extrapolated the savings from the 2 studies above into cost savings associated with a 1% reduction in CVD risk over time. Those calculated cost reductions per 1% reduction in CVD risk were applied to the UREW study population and their specific CVD risk reduction (see Table 1). All costs were calculated based on UREW program costs of annual participation in any or all program offerings. Return on investment was calculated by dividing the annualized savings, generated by CVD risk reduction, by the actual annual program costs. As you might expect, those males and females at no risk experienced a lower (but still notable) annualized cost savings and ROI but those males and females at risk, showed significant cost savings and ROI:

Table 1

Annualized cost
savings per person

Program cost
per person

Return on

No risk males
(n = 2,723)

$246.40 $188.99 1.3

No risk females
(n = 6,081)

$1,268.40 $211.02 6.0

At risk males
(n = 254)

$9,579.50 $263.21 36.4

At risk females
(n = 58)

$5,909.99 $293.02 20.2

When these savings are combined based on number of participants in each category, the overall cost savings is $1,224.20 per individual or 5.93 ROI. Put another way:

To learn more about the employee wellness program from UR Medicine, request a demo or email us at urcew@urmc.rochester.edu.