Study questions effectiveness of workplace wellness

A study has found “little evidence” that workplace wellness programmes pay off, despite US companies spending a reported combined USD$8 billion annually on such schemes.

Researchers from the National Bureau of Economic Research in the US set out to examine the impact of workplace wellness programmes by devising their own and testing it for a year on employees at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

3,300 eligible employees opted to take part in the scheme, which included various wellness activities, biometric health screening and a health risk assessment. They were also offered incentives to participate in the programme – randomly assigned amounts between $50 and $350.

After a year the group had spent practically the same amount on medication and other health care costs ($566) than the control group of 1,534 randomly selected workers who were eligible for the scheme but not permitted to enrol, who had spent $562 per month on health costs. 

The researchers suggested that this was evidence employee health programmes do not reduce employee medical costs or raise productivity by decreasing absenteeism, coupled with figures that showed no "significant reduction" in sick days or increase in the likelihood of participants starting to go to the on-campus gym more frequently.

Those who took part in the scheme were also found to be no less likely to leave their jobs than those in the control group, said the study. 

It also found that “healthier” employees were more likely to self-select to participate in the programme, with annual medical expenditures already $1,574 lower than nonparticipants.

Financial considerations

The 2010 Affordable Care Act promotes workplace wellness by allowing employers to offer participation incentives worth up to 30% of the total cost of company health insurance.

However, the study’s researchers suggest that tying rewards to completing individual wellness activities was more cost-effective than providing up-front incentives to undergo the initial screening: “…increasing a large financial incentive to even greater levels will transfer large sums of money to workplace wellness program participants, but will have little effect [on levels of participation],” the study said, after observing a drop-off in completion rate when the reward was raised from $100 to $200.

A $100 reward boosted the completion rate by 12 percentage points to 59%, but it only increased by a further 4 points when the incentive was raised to $200.

“While we do not find significant effects for most of the outcomes we examine, it is possible that longer-run effects may emerge in the second or third year following the intervention,” said the study’s researchers.

If the results of the study are to be adopted, it is possible that the success of workplace wellness schemes, both financially for businesses and personally for employees, could be boosted by refocusing the goal on improving the health of those less likely to self-select in the first place.