Wellness programs may not pay immediate dividends

Workplace wellness programs aren't likely to show significant results early on, according to a new study. 

The Illinois Workplace Wellness Study sorted (PDF) about 4,800 employees at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne into a control group or into one of six wellness programs, which included on-campus health screenings, wellness activities and financial incentives for participation. 

The researchers didn't find significant increases in productivity or trips to the gym, nor did they find significant decreases in healthcare costs or sick days taken by employees in the program. 

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"Across 39 different outcomes that we looked at, we found zeroes—and fairly precise zeroes—on almost all outcomes," David Molitor, Ph.D., as assistant professor of economics at the University of Illinois and one of the study's co-authors, told WBUR. 

There were two exceptions, Molitor said. People enrolled in the wellness program were more likely to receive health screenings, a potential cost-saver for both employers and insurance companies. And they said they felt their employer prioritized their health. 

The researchers say it's possible these programs will eventually bear fruit, and they intend to continue the study for four more years. However, they said that employers and their health insurers should not expect to see significant results in the first year of a wellness initiative. 

One area of concern, according to the researchers, is that the employees who may stand to benefit most from a wellness program, including smokers, are the least likely to participate. 

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Many organizations, including medical groups and state Medicaid programs, are offering gift cards, cash and other rewards for patients who get preventive screenings and make healthier lifestyle choices, following the lead of private insurers and employers that have long rewarded people for healthy behavior such as quitting smoking or maintaining weight loss. 

But that tactic, too, is unproven. 

Overall, research on the effectiveness of financial incentives for the Medicaid population has been mixed. A report last year by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that they can induce people to keep an appointment or attend a class but are less likely to yield long-term behavior changes, such as weight loss.

And in some cases, the report said, incentives go to people who would have sought preventive care anyway.

Other studies of these programs have produced similar results. Researchers studied Mayo Clinic's workplace wellness initiative and found that it did not impact obesity rates among staff members, though it did encourage some employees to quit smoking.