Employers looking for payoffs from corporate wellness programs within 18 months might do well to lower their expectations.

By David Walker

Posted on May 17, 2019

A major new study involving more than 8,000 employees has added to doubts over the business effectiveness of workplace wellness programs.

The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, one of the world’s most influential medical journals.

It found that one company’s workplace wellness programs did not noticeably change either employees’ clinical markers of health, such as cholesterol, blood pressure and body mass index. Nor did it improve corporate outcomes such as measures of their absenteeism, tenure or job performance.

The employees did report engaging more in regular exercise and more actively managing their health, though.

The study was conducted on 160 worksites of US retail company BJ’s Wholesale Club between January 2015 and June 2016, by Harvard assistant professor of healthcare policy and medicine Dr Zirui Song and healthcare economist Dr Katherine Baicker. Baicker is Dean of the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and was a member of president George W Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers.

Both researchers had been part of a previous influential study with noted economist David Cutler which reported in 2010 that wellness programs could pay off for companies.

Some 4,037 employees received a multicomponent workplace wellness program implemented by registered dieticians, while another 4,106 employees did not.

The study notes that workplace wellness programs have become increasingly popular as employers have aimed to lower healthcare costs and improve employee health and productivity. And a number of earlier studies have reported lower absenteeism and healthcare spending.

But most previous large-scale studies had to use employees who volunteered for wellness programs, and who may thus be more likely to already follow a healthy lifestyle. This study, in contrast, was able to use a more reliable method where employees were randomly assigned to one group or the other.

The researchers say the study was limited by incomplete data on some outcomes. And they note that because the program (like many others) focused on changing behaviours, it might improve health or reduce spending over a longer time frame. But they also write that “behaviour change is likely easier to achieve than improvements in clinical or employment outcomes”.

They conclude that “these findings may temper expectations about the financial return on investment that wellness programs can deliver in the short term”.

This is the second major study in less than a year to sound warnings about workplace wellness programs; another randomised control study of workers at the University of Illinois campus also found sparse gains. The authors of that study emphasised that the workers who do best from such programs seem to already be motivated to pay attention to their health.