While short-term wellness programs can have a positive impact on certain employee health behaviors, many fail to positively impact healthcare costs.
Short-term wellness programs prove useful in promoting positive health behaviors among employees, but these programs are failing to have a positive effect on healthcare costs, according to a study published in JAMA.
Employers have increasingly invested in workplace wellness programs to improve employee health, productivity, and decrease healthcare costs. To examine the impact of workplace wellness programs on employees, the group implemented wellness programs at 40 worksites. After a period of 18 months, researchers compared employee outcomes to those at worksites without wellness programs.
The wellness programs consisted of eight modules focused on nutrition, physical activity, stress reduction, and related topics implemented by registered dietitians at the worksites.
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The team assessed four outcome domains among the study sites, including self-reported health and behaviors via surveys, clinical measures via health screenings, healthcare spending and utilization, and employment outcomes.
Researchers found that among 32974 employees, the average participation rate in surveys and screenings at sites with wellness programs was between 36.2 percent and 44.6 percent. At sites without wellness programs, the average participation rate was between 34.4 percent and 43.0 percent.
After 18 months, the rates for two self-reported outcomes were higher at sites with wellness programs than at sites without wellness programs.
Worksites with the wellness program had an 8.3-percentage point higher rate of employees who engaged in regular exercise than sites without the program. While 69.8 percent of employees participating in wellness programs reported exercising regularly, 61.9 percent of employees at sites without wellness programs reported the same.
Wellness program participants also reported higher rates of actively managing their weight than employees not participating in the program. While 69.2 percent of wellness program employees reported actively managing their weight, just 54.7 percent of employees not in wellness programs said the same, a difference of 13.6 percentage points.
However, the program didn’t have any significant effect on other prespecified outcomes. These other outcomes included self-reported health, sleep quality, and food choices; as well as clinical markers of health, including cholesterol, blood pressure, and body mass index.
The programs also didn’t appear to have a significant effect on medical and pharmaceutical spending and utilization measures, or on employment outcomes, such as absenteeism, job performance, and job tenure.
These results demonstrate that while workplace wellness programs can improve the health behaviors of employees over a short period of time, they may not be as effective in improving clinical measures of health and reducing healthcare costs.
“Among employees of a large US warehouse retail company, a workplace wellness program resulted in significantly greater rates of some positive self-reported health behaviors among those exposed compared with employees who were not exposed, but there were no significant differences in clinical measures of health, health care spending and utilization, and employment outcomes after 18 months,” the researchers concluded.
“Although limited by incomplete data on some outcomes, these findings may temper expectations about the financial return on investment that wellness programs can deliver in the short term.”
These results support findings from a 2018 Willis Towers Watson survey, which showed that employers tend to believe their wellness programs are having a positive impact on employee health and care costs.
“Employers remain committed to their health and well-being programs because they understand the advantages of having a healthy and engaged workforce,” Shelly Wolff, a senior healthcare consultant at Willis Towers Watson, said at the time.
“However, employers understand that existing approaches have not been effective and so are looking at new directions to change employees’ health behaviors.”
To ensure employee wellness programs are actually effective in improving health and reducing costs, employers can tailor programs to meet the specific needs of their employees, according to an employer guide developed by the Transamerica Center for Health Studies and the Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces.
For example, if employees say that getting more exercise is one of their main goals, employers can create a wellness program geared toward that goal. Employers can also get feedback from employees to gain insight on their wellness needs.
Additionally, employers can entice individuals to participate in wellness programs by implementing a competitive structure and gamification to motivate employees.
Ultimately, employers should recognize that in order for wellness programs to successfully reduce costs and improve clinical measures, they must be implemented and designed for the long-term.
Date: April 23, 2019