Big Data or No Data: Can Wellness Boost Engagement?

Workforce analytics has taken center stage in the human resources industry as companies employ big data tools to help assess and predict their workforce needs.

To stay ahead of this trend, Talent Management is producing a series of special reports this year, tracking the effect that analytics is having on HR strategies. In this installment, we explore if companies are tracking data to measure how effective corporate wellness programs are in boosting engagement and productivity, or if the right data is even available.

As employers escalate efforts to measure if wellness programs have the long-term potential to help alleviate the burden of growing health care costs, the jury is still out on if such initiatives are effective in boosting other often-touted benefits, like productivity and engagement. This is mostly because many employers are still searching for reliable data that can directly measure wellness’ positive influence on such issues.

While some employers are determining the impact of wellness programs by measuring absenteeism rates and performance review scores, most experts say it is far more difficult to measure wellness’ impact on engagement — the level of employees’ discretionary effort viewed as an underlying enabler of productivity and bottom-line growth.

Because many factors go into measuring “presenteeism” — when workers may not be putting in maximum effort — it can be difficult to pinpoint if wellness programs are effective in increasing discretionary effort, according to practitioners and benefits experts.

For most, the data simply isn’t there, and many practitioners say they prefer to rely on anecdotal evidence.

“The major purpose of our wellness program is to improve employee health, and by improving health, we have lowered health care costs,” said Collier Case, director of benefits at telecommunications firm Sprint Corp. “We believe this puts employees in a better position to be productive, but we don’t feel it’s necessary to have formal measurements about that because it’s easy to see anecdotally.”

But in light of big data trends, a growing number of top decision-makers want to see more evidence of return on investment from wellness programs, particularly as the longer-term goal of reducing spending on health care might take years to realize, if it materializes at all.

Katie Kuehner-Hebert is a California-based freelance journalist. She can be reached at

To read the next story in Talent Management’s special report, click here.