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A series of recent studies have found correlations between the use of employee wellness programs or, more generally, having a company culture that emphasizes health and wellness and stock price performance. These findings are significant because they suggest that there may be a causal connection between corporate wellness and marketplace performance. However, critics argue that these causal inferences are not supported by the evidence.

To help employers come to their own conclusions, this post explains and comments on both sides of the debate and considers some alternatives to using stock price performance as a measure of the efficacy of wellness programs.

 

The Studies

To test for the presence of a correlation between wellness-centric cultures and stock prices, some researchers used the following two-step procedure.

  1. Compile a list of health and wellness-centric companies: The first thing that researchers needed to do is compile a list of companies with cultures that that support and emphasize the importance of employee wellness. When determining whether a given company belongs on the list, researchers rely on various pieces of evidence (e.g., whether that company has received health and wellness rewards from reputable organizations). 
  2. Analyze the portfolio’s performance: Once the portfolio had been formed, researchers tracked its stock price performance over time. If the stock prices of the companies in the portfolio increased relative to the benchmark, then a positive correlation would have been observed.

By and large, the portfolios that researchers created and analyzed performed quite well. For instance, Raymond Fabius and Sharon Phare’s portfolio performed two percent better than the Stanford and Poor’s 500 (S&P 500), a stock market index that tracks the performance 500 of the largest companies listed in the US.

 

Counterexamples

Though it can be tempting to draw causal conclusions from these findings, critics argue that the studies in question provide limited evidence of causation. For instance, Al Lewis, CEO of Quizzify, points to “counterexamples” (i.e., companies that have invested in wellness programs only to have to their stock prices drop) to argue that wellness probably doesn’t have a consistently positive effect on stock prices.

These sorts of counterexamples might seem prove that wellness programs don’t cause stock price increases. However, drawing this conclusion based on these counterexamples alone would be just as unwarranted as assuming causation based on a correlation.

Stock prices are influenced by a large variety of factors. In some cases, the factors that exert a negative force will outweigh the positive ones, resulting in an overall decrease in stock prices. So, it can both be true that a culture of health and wellness is good for stock prices, and that companies with such a culture may experience a decrease in their stock prices over time. A more appropriate benchmark may be one comprised of companies operating in similar industries to each of the portfolio companies. This will account for industry-specific impacts on stock prices. For example, an oil production company may see their stock price drop with the price of oil, but if wellness-centric companies outperform their peers, their stock price may drop less relative other oil production companies. Comparing an oil company’s performance to the S&P 500 in general, which includes many companies that would benefit from a drop in oil prices, is not a fair comparison, similar to evaluating absolute performance.

 

Value On Investment (VOI) 

In most cases, there are simply too many factors involved to determine the role that a wellness program or a culture of health and wellness played in a company’s performance in the marketplace. Thus, stock prices might not provide the best measure of the efficacy of health and wellness programs even if they generally have a positive impact on stock prices.

The types of outcomes listed below may provide better measures of the value of wellness in the workplace.

  • Productivity
  • Recruitment and retention
  • Employee satisfaction
  • Engagement
  • Morale
  • Presenteeism

Each of these outcomes has a clear connection with an organization’s financial performance over time. Moreover, they are easier to connect with employee wellness. Though employee productivity is a complicated phenomenon, it pales in comparison to the stock market. The same is true of presenteeism, engagement, and the like. This means that changes in any of these variables that follow the implementation of a wellness program can more reliably be attributed to that program. As a result, they amount to much better measures of the value of workplace wellness.

 

Takeaway

Employers and researchers alike are eager to determine the return that an investment in employee wellness provides. While potential connections with outcomes like stock price performance are exciting, they may be more distracting than they are informative. As a result, organizations looking to assess the efficacy of their wellness programs should consider broadening their notion of what counts as an important outcome. The value of employee wellness may include marketplace returns, but it certainly doesn’t end there.

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