A flurry of studies in the last few years seeks to answer one simple question: Do corporate health promotion programs actually work? The results have been mixed, which has contributed to growing skepticism about the value of investing in programs for employee, consumer, and community health.

However, it is time we asked a different question: Rather than ask whether such programs work, companies should ask how to make health programs work better.

Although there have been successful examples of corporate programs, companies often struggle to surface actionable lessons that can inform future decisions. Also, many successful examples have unique program design and implementation characteristics, making a plug-and-play approach—and scaling these successes—impossible.

Through our work with leading companies and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we have surfaced three lessons for how companies can make better decisions, leading to successful programs that create business value and improve health outcomes for employees and communities.

Lesson 1: Tackle Root Causes, and Invest in the Right Programs

Companies are realizing that addressing employee health requires looking at root causes of health risks. Social determinants, including economic status and environmental factors, can account for up to 50 percent of health outcomes, according to the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. In a study of 3,100 counties, the Vitality Institute found that employers with unhealthy workforces are more likely to be located in counties with poor health, validating the link between employee and community health.

Comprehensive data resources exist for companies to identify root causes and invest in the right interventions. For example, the County Health Rankings and PolicyMap provide relevant, customized, and comparable data on metrics such as access to healthy foods, physical activity opportunities, number of healthcare providers, and preventable hospital visits. These resources can help companies allocate scarce investment dollars toward programs that actually work, tackling root causes and, by extension, improving health outcomes. For instance, GE’s Healthy Cities program created an initiative in Cincinnati, given the company’s large manufacturing footprint there, to improve community and employee health. GE partnered with RAND Health Advisory Services to collect data on risk factors and health outcomes, which demonstrated whether GE’s investments were providing social and business value.

Lesson 2: Change Behavior, One Sensor at a Time

Companies now have the ability to capture real-time data on programs, pull out insights based on trends, and decide on course corrections along the way. For example, Bank of America launched a program to place sensors on badges of call center employees, which revealed how important social interactions and team dynamics are to productivity. The company learned about employee behavior and how to make the right management decisions to improve productivity, while improving employee life. One change: the company began scheduling group breaks rather than solo ones.

There are also a growing number of opportunities to partner with the technology sector to improve health through predictive analytics. Most recently, Medtronic partnered with IBM to monitor glucose levels in diabetic patients. IBM’s Watson cognitive technologies could identify hypoglycemia—extreme low blood sugar—up to three hours in advance of onset, which provided a critical window for the patient to take action. Through technology partnerships, companies can provide real value to their employees and customers, helping them manage their own health through better personal decision-making.

Lesson 3: To Create a Movement, Build a Culture of Health

More than 9 million people are now using wearable technologies like Fitbit, a number expected to grow exponentially. While companies often see wearables as an opportunity to design incentive programs, they should also see them as a tool to build a culture of health. Wearables can translate data captured into a social currency that not only incentivizes healthier behavior but also creates a cohesive culture. For instance, Target recently provided more than 300,000 employees with Fitbits, who then formed teams for a month-long fitness challenge with a US$1 million charitable prize. The program provided employees with shared goals, a common set of comparison metrics, and a unifying theme. Other mobile platforms exist to create peer-to-peer networks that cultivate a culture of health. Runtastic, Fitocracy, and Daily Feats are just a few of the apps that collect, aggregate, and communicate data based on physical activity to embed health into the lives of their user bases.

The question about the return on investment of employee, customer, and community health programs is important, but it should not divert focus away from how to improve health programs. Companies that lead on health by applying the lessons above—tackling the root causes, influencing individual behavior, and creating collective action—will see more success on health outcomes and on engagement with employees and communities.