I signed up for the 2015 “Healthy Rewards” (the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin workplace wellness program) within about five minutes of getting the email that it was available. Aside from the fact that I’m a bit on the competitive side, I figure the only thing better than having good health care when you’re sick is staying well in the first place. For employers, a healthy workforce should have all kinds of benefits, including lowering their health care costs, which helps explain why Children’s, along with over half of all US businesses, offers a wellness program (with larger companies more likely to have them). In fact, workplace wellness is a $6 billion a year industry. Must be a smart investment, right?
That’s not entirely clear. A recent NY Times article, citing several reports and systematic reviews, called into question the health and financial benefits of these programs. At the risk of oversimplifying, here’s a summary of the salient points from those articles:
1) Studies of the impact on employee health are generally poorly designed and have mixed results. Better designed studies (i.e., randomized trials) are less likely to show benefits, but still half of these have demonstrated that wellness programs lead to improvements in some aspects of health including exercise, weight management, and smoking cessation.
2) Programs that are focused on disease management (e.g., targeting employees with chronic conditions and incentivizing them to better management and preventive care) have a generally better impact than those focused on more general lifestyle management or screening.
3) The overall benefit of these programs is probably muted by the fact that on average fewer than half of eligible employees participate, with some evidence that those most likely to benefit are the ones who are opting out.
4) Overall wellness programs seem to save employers money, but part of that is from shifting costs to employees (e.g., higher premiums for those who do not meet screening criteria). Most studies showed a positive return on investment, but the quality of these studies was low.
5) Key facilitators of success include making wellness activities convenient and easily accessible for employees, and making wellness an organizational priority among senior leaders.
So yes, the jury is still out; it’s not a slam dunk that these programs are all they are cracked up to be. But if half the randomized trials indicate a positive benefit, I’d say the glass isn’t half empty, it’s half full – of clean, non-bottled tap water, of which we ought to drink 64 ounces a day. In the meantime, go ahead and sign up.