Do workplace wellness programs really work? According to a recent Bloomberg Business article, the answer is no. The article cited evidence from the Illinois Workplace Wellness Study which investigated the effects of workplace wellness programs on employee medical spending, productivity and overall well-being. The study looked at 4,834 employees - 1,534 were assigned to the control group and 3,300 were offered an opportunity to participate in the iThrive Program. Researchers state that they did not find "significant causal effects of treatment on total medical expenditures, health behaviors, employee productivity, or self-reported health status in the first year." Am I surprised by the findings of this particular study? No and here's why.
The iThrive program involves health education and wellness activities, including in-person classes on chronic disease management, weight management, tai chi, physical fitness, financial wellness, and healthy workplace habits; a tobacco cessation hotline; and an online, self-paced wellness challenge. These are all important components of a wellness program. However, health education and wellness activities alone don't usually produce behavior change. The iThrive program fails to take into account the importance of the work environment. Strategies that create a healthy work environment are generally more effective because they reach more people, and the effects are longer lasting. These strategies make the healthy choice the easy choice. Here are some examples:
- Developing a written policy that ban tobacco use on the property,
- Replacing junk food in the vending machines with healthy and nutritious options,
- Developing a written policy for ordering healthy meals for meetings,
- Providing flex time to encourage employees to exercise during the day,
- Providing access to an onsite exercise facility, and
- Encouraging active forms of transportation by providing bike racks.
In addition, this study only tracked outcomes for one year. The researchers recognized that meaningful effects may emerge in later years. Several studies have found that wellness programs can take up to three years to yield results. Bottom line - behavior change doesn't happen over night, and it takes time to reverse chronic disease.
So, back to the original question. Do wellness programs really work? The jury is still out. Many studies have investigated the effectiveness of workplace wellness programs with mixed results. Moving forward it's important implement and evaluate comprehensive programs that incorporate both individual- and environmental-level strategies.