Study: Wellness programs may not lower medical costs, improve behaviors
- A new wellness program research study found that, in the first year of a sample program, there was no significant improvement in medical expenditures, health behaviors, employee productivity, or self-reported health status.
- The authors of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) paper designed a wellness program for an employer with more than 12,000 employees to examine its effects. Participants in the program had lower medical costs and healthier attitudes than employees who didn't participate in the program, but that was true the year before they opted into the program, too. This likely means that healthier employees are more likely to participate in wellness programs, the authors concluded.
- The authors noted, however, that there might be some indirect savings from wellness programs through the recruiting and retention of lower-risk employees.
While there's plenty of research touting the benefits of workplace wellness programs, the NBER paper is an important reminder to keep an eye on results. When employers adopt wellness programs, they need to build in ways to measure the initiative's ROI.
Employers also should ensure that workers are getting what they want. Increasingly, employees are reporting that these programs don't fit their needs. Most employees (61%) in a Willis Towers Watson survey said their employers' well-being initiatives are falling short. And 64% in a Thomsons Online Benefits survey said its the workplace itself that's having a negative effect on their wellbeing.
Finally, as the paper notes, employers that offer wellness programs may at least have an edge over those that don't in competing for talent. As employers expand wellness offerings to include things like financial wellness, they may see these programs become an effective recruiting tool.
- National Bureau of Economic Research What Do Workplace Wellness Programs Do? Evidence from the Illinois Workplace Wellness Study