Comprehensive employee wellness programs can provide a direct boost to your company’s bottom line, a new study shows — no matter the size of the company.

Such programs were once viewed as a nice extra for employees, but not a strategic imperative. But the data tell another story, according to a team of researchers led by Leonard L. Berry of Texas A&M University, Ann M. Mirabito of Baylor University and William B. Baun of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Their research shows that the return on investment from comprehensive, well-run employee wellness programs can be as high as six-to-one.

But it takes more than posting nutrition information in the cafeteria or doling out a few passes to a fitness center to achieve meaningful results. The most successful wellness programs are supported by six essential pillars, said Berry, Texas A&M’s distinguished professor of marketing.

Successful programs need engaged leadership at multiple levels, strategic alignment with the company’s identity and aspirations, a design that is broad in scope and high in relevance and quality, broad accessibility, internal and external partnerships and effective communications, Berry said.

The researchers looked at 10 companies in a variety of industries, including American icons such as Johnson & Johnson and Lowe's, as well as lesser-known companies such as Comporium Communications. What they found is that employee wellness programs built on all six pillars have resulted in lower costs, greater productivity and higher morale.

These programs are not the exclusive preserve of large companies.

“My coauthors and I are of a firm belief that these concepts apply equally well to small companies,” Berry told BusinessNewsDaily. “These are adaptable concepts.”

In fact, he said, some of the foundational pillars — such as engaged leadership and the concept of management by walking around — may even be more productive for smaller companies. Workers won’t buy into a program that’s just about money, the study reported. But if the CEO makes time for exercise, for example, employees will feel less self-conscious about taking a fitness break.

While that kind of leadership by example is not always practical with a large organization, Berry said, it’s the stock in trade for most small organizations.

“In a small company, you’re going to have more visibility for top management,"  he said. “In a small company, all the employees are going to see the owner or CEO from time to time.”

Forming external partnerships also gives small companies a way to leverage their resources, Berry said, pointing to  Comporium Communications as an example. The company worked with the YMCA and a local medical practice to design a “metabolic makeover” program for willing at-risk employees.  It was a low-investment way for the company to enhance its wellness program.

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Reach BusinessNewsDaily senior writer Ned Smith at nsmith@techmedianetwork.com. Follow him on Twitter @nedbsmith.