There's little evidence wellness programs work. Employers remain bullish on them anyway, survey finds

Though the evidence is limited on their efficacy, employers are moving ahead with well-being programs, according to a new report. 

Fidelity and the National Business Group on Health (NBGH) released (PDF) the 10th edition of their annual Health and Well-Being Survey and found that large employers are expected to spend an average of $3.6 million this year on wellness programs. 

Much of that investment will go toward incentive or reward programs that encourage employees and their families to participate, according to the report. About 40% of budgets will go toward these incentives. 

The estimated average incentive per employee decreased slightly from 2018 to $762 from $784, but that figure is still nearly three times what employers were paying in 2009. 

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All told, 33% said they would continue to invest in these financial incentives over the next three to five years, according to the study. 

Though employers are projected to continue investing in these programs, research suggests the benefits of well-being initiatives may be limited. Just this week, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that there have yet to be significant clinical payoffs from these programs. 

Robert Kennedy, health and welfare practice leader at Fidelity Workplace Consulting, told FierceHealthcare that employers are still behind these programs because they add to the company’s overall value proposition to potential hires who’ve come to expect them. They’re not necessarily looking for a more traditional return on investment, such as lower healthcare costs or improved physical health. 

That said, they’re not unaware of the concerns that these programs don’t really pay off, he said. “I think they’re full steam ahead, but I think employers do acknowledge that concern,” Kennedy said. 

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LuAnn Heinen, vice president of workforce well-being and productivity at NBGH, told FierceHealthcare that employers are learning a hyper-focus on ROI can lead them to miss the forest for the trees.

For example, a retail employer may find that their employees sell more when they’re happier, which well-being programs can support and is ultimately a boon to the company that’s less immediately measurable than health benefit savings, she said.

“I do think that it’s great when employers and companies don’t necessarily focus on ROI as the be all and end all,” she said. “You’re missing a lot of opportunity in terms of what really matters in terms of running a business.”