Most workplace wellness programs have two goals: to improve the health of employees and lower employers’ healthcare costs. Now, after billions of dollars have been spent on tests, screenings, and wellness promotions, the central question is: do these wellness programs work?
New research is suggesting that they do not, and are failing in accomplishing their two main goals. The study conducted at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign saw 3,300 employees given a year of access to iThrive which is a workplace wellness program very similar to what is typically offered by most companies. There was also a control group of 1,534 employees who did not receive access.
The researchers of the study were looking to answer the following three questions: do wellness programs have any effects on health outcomes, medical spending, and other measures including productivity? Can money spur more people to participate? And, who’s most likely to participate?
The employees who were offered the program were then randomly split into six groups. They were all offered biometric screening, a health assessment, and various services and classes like chronic disease management, tai chi, and a fitness challenge. However, the only caveat was that there were different payouts for each group after completing each step of the program which ranged from $50 to $350.
The results of the study found that the wellness programs, even with the incentives, did not have much of an effect on employees’ behavior. Firstly, the money proved not to be much of an incentive. Without the cash offered, a little less than half of the employees completed the assessment and screening. Adding a $100 reward boosted the rate to 59 percent, and then doubling the reward didn’t make much of a difference as the number increased to 63 percent.
The study showed that these programs do not benefit the employer either. The researchers found that participation in these programs did not result in better health outcomes or lower healthcare costs. In fact, the medical spending habits of the employees who were not given access to the program were almost identical to that of the employers who did have access.
One of the takeaways was that the employees who are most likely to take advantage of a wellness program are already healthy and do not spend much on healthcare, while the employees with the highest healthcare costs are less likely to participate. Now, despite the constant debate about whether or not wellness programs work, companies still pour money into them. The industry went from $1 billion in 2011 to $6.8 billion in 2016 according to an IBIS World Analysis.
It is possible, however, that these programs can yield results in the long run. Some studies have shown that workplace wellness programs can take about three years to bring forth any benefits.