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Workplace Wellness Isn't Just for Big Corporations. Here's How Small Businesses Can Build a Culture of Health. Naps, salads, open dialogue and leading by example are great places to start, says a leading workplace wellness researcher

By Frances Dodds

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Over the past decade, wellness has ballooned into a $4.2 trillion business. In the crowded marketplace of self-improvement, hardcore health innovations jostle with softcore supplements in the jade egg domain. Meanwhile, "hustle" culture has spawned a kind of work worship that has many people burning out and questioning how much they should really expect to get from (or give to) their jobs. In the midst of all this, workplace wellness is on the rise; more than 80 percent of large companies and 50 percent of small companies have implemented such programs. Despite their pervasiveness, big questions linger over what, exactly, works.

That's something that Dr. Ron Goetzel has devoted his career to studying. Goetzel is a senior scientist and director of the Institute for Health and Productivity Studies at Johns Hopkins, as well as VP of applied research for IBM Watson Health. He says the first idea worth considering is how we think about what "works." Traditionally, the measurement for success has been return on investment (ROI), or what a company saves on lowered healthcare costs and reduced absenteeism given how much they've invested in wellness initiatives. Goetzel does plenty of these analyses. Since 1994, he's run The Health Project, which gives a yearly award to companies with demonstrably effective wellness initiatives. He led a recent study showing that over a 14-year period, a portfolio of 26 of these companies significantly outperformed the S&P 500. The 26 companies that truly invested in wellness delivered a stock return of 325 percent, versus the S&P 500's 105 percent. Data suggests that wellness programs done right do, in fact, pay dividends.

Even so, Goetzel says that more and more researchers in his line of work are considering something called value on investment (VOI) over ROI. "It's hard to put a dollar value on happiness and motivation, on attraction and retention of talent," he says. "So a lot of companies are now thinking about value on investment. If they're spending money, and keeping people healthy — not just physically but mentally, socially, financially, intellectually, spiritually — what's the value? Often the number one thing companies care about is engagement. You know, are people coming to work and loving their job, their coworkers, their boss? And ultimately, am I lowering health care costs?"

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