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Wellness Programs – New Study Confirms Cautioned Approach

During the past seven years, I have written a fair number of posts regarding wellness programs offered by employers. The core message of all blogs suggests that employers must have realistic expectations about what wellness initiatives will or will not do within the workplace.

A recent randomized clinical study published in JAMA is yet another reminder for employers to have tepid expectations when trying to keep their employees happy, healthy and less likely to incur more health costs. The study found that workplace wellness programs do not cut healthcare costs for employers, reduce absenteeism or improve the health of employees.

From the University of Chicago and Harvard, researchers used a large-scale approach that was peer-reviewed and included a more sophisticated design when analyzing BJ’s Wholesale Clubs. BJ’s has about 33,000 employees across 160 clubs. This analysis compared 20 randomly-assigned clubs that offered wellness programs with 140 BJ’s clubs that did not.

After 18 months of timeline analysis, this study revealed that wellness programs did not result in health measure differences, such as: improved blood sugar or glucose levels, reduced healthcare costs or absenteeism, or impacted job performance in a positive manner. In other words, employees with a wellness program did not experience reduced healthcare costs and other desired affects. I suppose one could argue that a year and one half was not enough comparison time to develop these conclusions.

One of the authors of this study, Katherine Baicker, dean of the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, put it quite succinctly in a Kaiser Health News article: “[But] if employers are offering these programs in hopes that health spending and absenteeism will go down, this study should give them pause.”

What are your expectations about workplace wellness? Do you believe such programs, when appropriately and thoughtfully implemented, will greatly mitigate your healthcare costs, improve workforce productivity and reduce absenteeism? Maybe you feel these programs are a waste. From our 2012 Iowa Employer Benefits Study, employers shared their perceived ‘return on investment’ on the programs they currently had in place.

According to a 2013 “Workplace Wellness Programs Study” by researchers at the RAND Corporation, these programs only have a modest effect. This runs contrary to claims made by wellness firms that sell workplace wellness programs to employers. The report found that people who participate in wellness initiatives lose an average of only one pound a year for three years. Another finding is that employee participation in such plans “was not associated with significant reductions in total cholesterol level.” Smoking-cessation programs show some potential, but only “in the short term.”

Most likely, both skeptics and supporters of wellness initiatives will find ammunition to support their cause. Workplace wellness programs have grown to an $8 billion industry in the U.S., primarily as a direct result of rising employer health insurance costs.

This latest report may help stabilize any pre-conceived lofty expectations each of us may have about the benefits of workplace wellness programs. However, it must be noted that some employers have found value in these programs.

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