Study: Workplace wellness programs do not save employees money or make them healthier

Over 50 million workers are currently enrolled in workplace wellness programs — an $8 billion dollar industry promising to help you shed pounds and kick start healthier habits so that you can save your boss money on healthcare costs. But a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that these programs did not significantly save employees money or make them healthier.

Are wellness programs entirely useless?

Researchers offered 3,300 randomized employees at the University of Illinois a spot into their wellness program while recruiting 1,500 others to be in a control group that would not take part in the program. The researchers said they designed their wellness program to be as effective as possible according to industry standards.

After a year, the researchers found that there was no significant difference in health costs, health behaviors, employee productivity, or extra trips to the gym between the two groups.

Researchers did find that wellness programs’ financial incentives made an impact on getting employees to participate in health screenings — but only up to a point. Paying employees to participate in health screenings worked better than offering zero dollars, but the researchers found only a 4% difference in participation between paying employees $100 versus $200, suggesting that one hundred dollars may be enough to get employees to show up for a health screening.

“Our main hope is that this study provide credible evidence on the impacts of these programs in a space where credible evidence is lacking for how big of an issue workplace wellness is,” the study’s co-author David Molitor said.

Why are wellness programs ineffective at changing health behaviors? The study suggests that wellness programs are a self-selecting process where healthy employees are the ones most likely to opt into them: “Selection into wellness programs is associated with both lower average spending and healthier behaviors prior to the beginning of the study.”

In other words, the employees most likely to join wellness programs are healthy employees with low health-care costs who need it the least.

When your employer encourages you to sign up for its corporate wellness program, feel free to sign up for the swag and gym motivation. Just don’t expect immediate results.