Study Sheds Doubt on First-Year Benefits of Corporate Wellness Programs

Employee Wellness
(Photo by Thinkstock.) The benefits of corporate wellness programs in the first year may not be clear, depending on how you define them.

More than 50 million Americans participate in corporate wellness programs, but rewards in improved health don't occur in the first year, according to a study released in January.

The study found that after one year of participation in the wellness program, participants in the program had not experienced lower average monthly medical spending or improved measured health behaviors, according to The National Bureau of Economic Research's Illinois Workplace Wellness Study.

The control group spent $562 per month on average on medical care while participants in the program spent $566 per month on average. Gym usage in the control group was 5.9 visits while the wellness program participants had 5.8 gym visits.

This study contradicts several others that show benefits from corporate wellness programs. However, one of the study's authors, David Molitor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said that many of the previous studies were observational and didn't take into account that healthier people tend to sign up for wellness programs more than unhealthy employees.

In this study, a randomized, controlled trial was used in which nearly 5,000 University of Illinois employees were randomly assigned to either participate in the program or be part of the control group that did not have access to the program.

In response to the report, Brenda Loube, president and co-founder of Corporate Fitness Works, St. Petersburg, Florida, said: "If the question is 'Do workplace wellness programs help organizations reduce healthcare costs?,' the definitive answer to that certainly is debatable and difficult to measure. If the question is 'Can workplace wellness programs be an excellent people-development strategy that helps employees thrive and the organization grow?,' the answer is absolutely a yes – if they are based on updated research about human nature and behavior change, and if they are offered in a way that integrates wellbeing with all other organizational initiatives with a unified goal. How long it takes for individuals and organizations to experience a benefit is a complex question to answer because it depends on a variety of variables that are different within each organization."

The evidence to prove that wellness programs in the workplace reduce healthcare costs is difficult to prove, said Loube, whose company offers corporate wellness programs and manages corporate wellness facilities.

"Even the most well-run wellness program is unlikely to reduce an organization’s healthcare costs," she said.

The relationship between health behaviors and healthcare spending is weak, and the cost of wellness programs usually outpaces whatever minimal spending benefit might exist, Loube said.

"The variables that affect health outcomes go far beyond lifestyle behaviors – think genetics, biology, socio-economic status, access to medical care, demographics, etc.," she said. "And even if you can affect health behaviors (i.e. eating, physical activity, sleep, stress) positively with a wellness program – which is possible given the right conditions -  there are too many other factors influencing healthcare spending to allow for these changes at the individual level to reduce an organization’s total spend on healthcare. The American healthcare industry is challenged in so many ways at a systemic level that what an organization spends on healthcare is much more heavily influenced by things completely outside the average person’s control."

Contrary to popular myth, unhealthy behaviors are not at the crux of what’s driving sky-rocketing healthcare costs, Loube said.

"I believe we must start to own up to the myths around this that have been perpetuated, be  transparent with employers about expectations in this area, and be a part of the solution for finding strategies to address excessive healthcare spend," she said.

How long it will take for an organization to see a benefit from a workplace wellness program depends on several factors such as whether the organization has clearly defined goals and objectives and whether it has a clear understanding of the current culture, Loube said.  It also depends on if the program has a C-suite champion, role model and driver of the program, and whether it has high-level leadership buy in and support. Other important determinants are how thoroughly integrated the initiatives are, how well the organization is communicating the program and what else is going on in the organization.

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