Study: Employee wellness programs may not be that beneficial after all

Employee wellness programs have been highly touted by companies as of late. Eighty percent of large US employers offer workplace wellness programs in hopes that their employees will stay healthy and possibly get healthier, which would help the company’s bottom line by lowering health care costs. Plus, the thinking goes, healthier workers won’t call out sick, increasing productivity.

But in a study published this week in the Journal of American Medical Association where researchers from the University of Chicago and Harvard studied the effect of workplace wellness programs at 33,000 workers at warehouse rental chain BJ’s Wholesale Club over 18 months, it didn’t appear that wellness programs made a significant difference.

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“These results suggest that workplace wellness plans can affect health behaviors, but had no overall effect on health outcomes,” said study co-author Katherine Baicker, Dean of the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, in a release.


For the study, the researchers worked with BJ’s Wholesale Clubs to offer new wellness programs in randomly selected sites, which they compared to the control sites operating with no wellness programs.

The results were obvious in only two ways: worksites that offered the wellness program had an 8.3% higher rate of employees who reported doing regular exercise and a 13.6% higher rate of employees who reported “actively managing” their weight, in comparison to those working at sites where there was no wellness program offered.

However, the wellness program had no significant effects on any other outcomes, such as lower blood pressure, cholesterol, or blood sugar. There was no real decrease in healthcare spending. Workers at the sites where it was offered did not have lower absenteeism or better job performance.

It may be that 18 months is not long enough to see measurable results from a wellness initiative. For now, researchers agree that further research is needed. Study co-author Sirui Song, an assistant professor of health care policy and medicine at Harvard Medical School, cautioned the Verge that it is important to remember that this study covered just once workplace, after all.

“As we grow to understand how best to encourage healthy behavior, it may be that workplace wellness programs will play an important role in improving health and lowering the cost of health care,” said Song, an assistant professor of health care policy and medicine at Harvard Medical School, in a release.

“For now, however, we should remain cautious about our expectations from such interventions. Rigorous research to measure the effects of such programs can help make sure we’re spending society’s health and wellness dollars in the most effective way.”

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