Do Workplace Wellness Programs Really Work?

Employers spend an estimated $2 billion each year on corporate wellness programs in an attempt to stem the increasing cost of employee medical care, which is spiraling out of control. The theory behind workplace wellness programs is that if employers can get workers to take better care of themselves by quitting smoking, eating healthier and getting more exercise, these lifestyle improvements will be reflected in better health and lower health care costs. The effects of chronic illnesses such as heart disease, obesity and diabetes account for a staggering three-quarters of health care costs. But are these programs delivering the large-scale savings promised? Research seems to indicate that they aren’t.

Studies show that workplace wellness programs do generate a significant ROI—saving employers at least $3 for every dollar spent on wellness programs. However, these programs typically fail to reach their full potential as a result of lower-than-expected participation rates among employees. Only about 20 percent of employees with access to a corporate wellness program take advantage of it. This is despite the fact that some employers require non-participating employees to pay extra toward their healthcare coverage. For example, CVS employees who refused to submit to health screenings were required to pay $50 per month extra for health insurance.

A 2012 analysis performed by the Rand Corporation and sponsored by the U.S. Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services found that those who participated in wellness programs showed “statistically significant and clinically meaningful improvements in exercise frequency, smoking behavior, and weight control, but not cholesterol control,” and that there were no “statistically significant decreases in cost and use of emergency department and hospital care.” However, they theorized that these costs would come down over time if employees stuck with the programs.

Fewer than half of employees in companies with a workplace wellness program agree to a screening, and of those who are identified as requiring intervention, less than a fifth end up participating in the program. Although a review of literature by the California Health Benefits Review Program showed that those who participate in smoking cessation programs are more likely to quit smoking, they found that randomized controlled trials showed that wellness programs had no effect on lowering blood pressure, blood sugar or cholesterol levels.

One of the possible drawbacks to workplace wellness programs is that employees may go through unnecessary screenings and receive unnecessary treatments that end up costing more money than the illnesses they prevent. Al Lewis, a former consultant who used to promote workplace wellness programs to corporations, stopped doing so because he found that corporate HR departments were “playing doctor,” often ineffectively. He explained “You have to identify and medicate tons and tons of people to prevent one or two from getting sick,” which does not end up saving money or improving overall health.

The bottom line is that making lifestyle changes can be difficult, and workplace wellness programs need to be designed to help keep the motivation going for the workers enrolled. There are no overnight improvements, and employees need to stick with the program for a significant amount of time for the overall benefits to become apparent. Changes in the workplace are required, as well as individual lifestyle changes for each employee. For example, taking small steps like removing the pizza, donuts and soft drinks from the cafeteria and substituting healthy nuts and fruit might go some way toward making wellness programs work better.

The bottom line is that the jury is still out. The Rand study showed that more research is necessary in order to tailor workplace wellness programs so that they are effective.  That said, there is broad agreement that organizations can play a very positive role in encouraging healthier lifestyle habits among their employees. The real question might be whether enough employees are ready to let them.

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