Wellness programs are smart for employees and the bottom line, a new study shows. The return on investment is sometimes as high as six to one.

To achieve those kinds of results, employers cannot merely offer workers a few passes to a fitness center and nutrition information in the cafeteria, researchers report in the December issue of Harvard Business Review.

The most successful wellness programs are supported by six essential pillars:

  1. engaged leadership at multiple levels;
  2. strategic alignment with the company's identity and aspirations;
  3. a design that is broad in scope and high in relevance and quality;
  4. broad accessibility;
  5. internal and external partnerships; and
  6. effective communications.

The researchers from Texas A&M University and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center studied 10 organizations that have financially sound workplace wellness programs.

They conducted interviews with senior executives, managers of health-related functions and focus groups of middle managers and employees -- in all, about 300 people.

A broad range of companies -- including Johnson & Johnson, Lowe's, H-E-B, and Healthwise -- have built their employee wellness programs on all six pillars and have reaped big rewards in the form of lower costs, greater productivity, and higher morale.

Those benefits are not easy to achieve, and verifiable paybacks are never a certainty, but the track record inspires emulation, especially when the numbers are studied, the report states.