Skip to Main Content

Impact | Investing in healthy employees

Volume 20, Number 12
December 2014

Michael Rouse’s research is building a strong business case for workplace wellness programs.

rouse-impact-14.jpgThere are hundreds of academic studies that show that firms get a positive return from investing in their employees’ health. Still, most employers are not really convinced that the investment is worth it. In fact, only about seven percent of U.S. firms have comprehensive workplace wellness programs.

Ivey Professor Michael Rouse says that a healthy workforce is the key to a sustainable competitive advantage. “Research shows that everything gets competed away very quickly,” he says. “The exception is the ability to outlearn your competitors. That requires investment in your key learning resource – your people.”

Rouse believes that workplace wellness programs result in lower costs, increased productivity, more innovation, and better recruitment and retention. Thanks to generous funding from Sun Life, and more recently Mitacs Accelerate, Rouse is leading an Ivey research team on a large workplace wellness study.

The first phase of the research, just completed, is a meta-analysis of all the academic literature in the field. The purpose of a meta-analysis is to pull together all of the studies using a screening process that excludes those that do not meet standards of scientific rigour. For example, meta-analysis has been used with great success in health care. “By bringing together all the existing research, you end up with a truer picture, with numbers that are much more statistically significant,” says Rouse. “Ours is the largest and most rigorous study ever conducted in this area.”

Prior to the Sun Life - Ivey study, the best evidence on workplace wellness was a meta-analysis conducted by a team from Harvard, based on U.S. research alone. The Harvard team found that companies with a comprehensive wellness program saved 1.7 days per employee per year in absenteeism, with an estimated savings of $274. A comprehensive program is one that contains both health promotion and disease prevention activities, and includes health-risk screening, individually tailored programs, health coaching, nutritional programs, and a supportive workplace culture. 

The meta-analysis conducted by Rouse and his team goes further than the Harvard study, pulling together every study in the world reported in the English language – 504 studies in all. Only four of these studies were rigorous enough to include in the meta-analysis. The research team made findings similar to the Harvard study. They found that companies with a comprehensive wellness program saved 1.5 days per employee per year, with an estimated savings of $251 per employee.

Statistics Canada shows that absenteeism in 2011 ranged from 4.7 days to 11.2 days depending on the age of the employee. The Conference Board of Canada reported that the cost of absenteeism to the Canadian economy in 2012 was $16.6 billion. “Based on these figures, our study means that firms who put in a wellness program will reduce absenteeism between 14 percent and 36 percent,” says Rouse. “We estimate an impact of $3.6 billion in reduced costs to the Canadian economy.”

The evidence from Rouse’s study establishes a clear link between workplace wellness programs and reduced absenteeism. But what about employees who are on the job but not working to potential? Rouse uses the term “presenteeism” to describe employees who are present at work but are unproductive because of health issues such as mental stress or fatigue. “There are a lot of indicators, suggestions, and studies reporting positive results from workplace wellness programs, but we still need solid scientific evidence to make the business case,” he says.

Rouse and his team are gathering that scientific evidence in the second phase of the research, the treatment and control study, which he expects to complete next year. This study involves eight companies across Canada, with 850 participants. Each company has at least one location with a comprehensive workplace wellness program and one without. “This way we’re controlling for industry, company policy, organizational culture, - a whole host of variables that might have an impact,” says rouse. “We’re getting some very high-quality data.”

Based on the data so far, Rouse expects clear evidence that comprehensive workplace wellness programs lead to a positive return on investment, increased productivity, improved organizational health and engagement, and better quality of working life. “If your employees are at work then they’re productive,” he says. “If they’re healthy, they are going to be innovative and creative. I have a vision that if every company in Canada had a workplace wellness program we would have a global competitive advantage.”


The Sun Life – Ivey Canadian Wellness ROI Study research team consists of Professors Michael J. Rouse, Greg Zaric, Charlice Hurst, Sisira Sarma, and Shauna Burke.


Previous issues of impact