Today, workplace wellness programs are offered by most large employers. They may be presented as part of an employee benefits package. These wellness programs typically provide fitness classes, health screenings, or gym memberships to workers free of charge. Other programs provide support for those looking to quit smoking or run their first 5K.
For companies, the incentive is the assumption that healthcare workers will be happier and more productive. A healthy workforce is also less likely to need sick days or use health insurance. It can also be argued that these offerings make employees less likely to leave a job, saving employers recruitment and replacement costs.
Companies bank on these assumptions, shelling out more than $8 billion a year for wellness programming. Now, the first major randomized analysis of the value of such programs suggests that they may be a bad investment.
While self-reported rates of getting regular exercise were 8.3% higher at workplaces with wellness programs, workers were not actually healthier.
Researchers followed over 30,000 workers for 18 months at 160 different sites. Twenty of the sites offered wellness programs while those remaining served as a control.
What researchers found was that workplace wellness programs had no significant impact on 27 self-reported health and behavior markers. These included perceived levels of stress and quality of sleep.
Clinically measurable health outcomes also went unchanged such as blood pressure and body composition. Employer-provided health programs also had no impact on an employee's length of employment, performance on the job, or absenteeism. Employees use of health care services, testing, and doctor visits also remained constant with the addition of wellness programming.
Despite the findings of this study, workers report wellness as a high priority and consider wellness programs to be an incentive. The above video goes into detail about some real-world workplace wellness programs and their benefits.
Although the research might be discouraging for employers hoping to lure and keep staff with wellness programs, not all is lost. Researchers note that previous observational studies suggest these programs are much more effective. This study is simply an important step towards understanding how best to promote health in the workplace.