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How wellness programs benefit business tough to determine

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Value on investment is a hot buzzword in wellness, but are businesses embracing it?

There's a reason the National Business Group on Health hasn't surveyed members on their use of value on investment, said Karen Marlo, a Washington-based vice president at the NBGH.

“I don't think we can get a good pulse,” she said of the approach that is in its early stages, is difficult to define and interpretations among employers vary.

While some employers have extensive measurement programs in place, experts say any effort tying employee health and wellness to business performance falls under the value-on-investment umbrella, even if it involves a single metric, such as employee turnover.

“We don't use a formal VOI method,” said Dr. Peter Wald, enterprise medical director at the financial services and insurance firm USAA in San Antonio. “But we do have a comprehensive data warehouse, so we do use various measures to judge the success of our program.”

Those measures include employee participation in programs, health risk profiles, total health cost trends and employee retention.

At EMC Corp., a global provider of information technology services, a value on investment approach “has grown organically,” said Lauri Tenney, director of benefits in Hopkinton, Massachusetts.

EMC, which employs 27,000 U.S. workers, began sizing up its health and wellness programs using broad business metrics, such as employee satisfaction and retention, long before corporate America started calling it value on investment, she said.

“We are in a high-tech industry, we are competing for talent, and we want to make sure that we can support our overall business objectives,” Ms. Tenney said. That is why employee impact “should really be our guiding principal, not necessarily the return on investment.”

Cambridge Health Alliance, an integrated health system in greater Boston, has a carefully crafted model to collect data on its 2-year-old wellness program. From its inception, CEO Patrick Wardell challenged program organizers to adopt a robust measurement strategy.

“He was not in any way prescriptive about it,” said Joy Curtis, senior vice president and chief human resources officer at the Cambridge, Mass.-based health system.

The system is measuring employee awareness, participation and engagement, among other metrics, which Ms. Curtis said will help her and her team adjust the program.

“That's where I think a lot of programs fail. They throw the spaghetti on the wall and see what sticks,” Ms. Curtis said. They ought to be showing executives the value on investment and some sense of the financial return on if they want to sustain those programs over time, she said.