In another blow to workplace wellness programs, study finds no improvement in health outcomes, cost

More employers continue to adopt workplace wellness programs, but recent evidence suggests that these programs might not work.

More than 84% of large companies offered a wellness program as a benefit to their employees in 2019, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Companies offering these programs have raised billions of dollars, promising everything from improved outcomes to reduced healthcare spending, but with little evidence.

A study recently published in Health Affairs pours cold water on these claims. The randomized, controlled trial of a workplace wellness program found that after three years, there was no significant difference in health outcomes, healthcare spending or retention between employees who participated in the program and those who didn’t.

The results might “temper expectations of substantial improvements in health outcomes or financial returns on investment from wellness programs,” wrote the study’s authors, Zirui Song at Harvard University and Katherine Baicker at the University of Chicago.

Researchers compared 25 worksites that received the program and 135 that did not. All of them were under BJ’s Wholesale Club, a large warehouse retail company.

Employees that participated in the program went through 12 modules, including cooking demonstration, fitness challenges, and meditation instruction. After three years, more employees at the worksites that offered the program reported better health behaviors, such as regularly exercising or actively managing their weight. But there was no significant difference between the participating worksites and the control group in medical spending, healthcare use, absenteeism or job performance.

The researchers built on a previous study from 2019 that yielded similar results. Employees at BJ’s Wholesale Club who participated in the program for 18 months reported better health behaviors, but also saw no difference in outcomes or spending. The improvement in health behaviors was also similar over an 18-month period compared to three years.

The study had a few limitations.  A larger sample size would also be helpful in measuring healthcare spending outcomes, the researchers noted. Not all of the participants were employed for the full duration of the study.

It’s also important to note that not all employees who were offered the wellness program actually used it. About 28% of employees at the participating sites completed at least one module, and some of them received $25 to $50 gift cards as an incentive.

Despite the sobering numbers, the adoption of workplace wellness programs shows no sign of slowing. Many employers might continue to offer them as a perk.

Whether companies find value in these programs depends on what they want to get out of them, Song and Baicker wrote in an accompanying editorial in the Washington Post.

“Employees seemed to value the benefit, had heightened awareness of the importance of healthy behaviors and were trying to implement them. If employers are seeking to add benefits that workers value (or attract workers who value those benefits), the programs may be worth it,” they wrote. “But if the goal is to save money by reducing health-care costs and absenteeism, or to improve chronic physical health conditions, the evidence so far is underwhelming.”

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