Workplace wellness programs produce limited clinical results, study finds

A new study is throwing cold water on the idea that workplace wellness programs significantly impact clinical outcomes. 

Researchers tracked a random sample of 4,834 employees at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign between August 2016 and April 2018 to see whether those that took advantage of wellness benefits—including financial incentives to seek health assessments—improved their health. 

They found that after two years, the employees that took advantage of the wellness program were more likely to have a primary care doctor and report improved health behaviors and beliefs, according to the study published in JAMA Internal Medicine. 

However, the team didn’t uncover any significant effects on health outcomes, use of healthcare services or rates of medical diagnoses after two years. They didn’t find a notable impact on workers’ self-reported mood, physical activity intensity or use of tobacco at either 12 months or 24 months into the program, according to the study. 

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In addition, the study didn’t find significant changes in weight, blood pressure, cholesterol levels or glucose levels, nor in the number of diagnoses for hypertension, diabetes or hypolipidemia. 

“These findings shed light on employees’ perceptions of workplace wellness programs, which may influence long-term effects,” the researchers said. “However, we add to a growing body of evidence … that workplace wellness programs are unlikely to significantly improve employee health or reduce medical use in the short term.” 

The study is the latest to call into question whether wellness programs pay off with measurable clinical benefits. Research released in April 2019 found a similar lack of clinical results, for example. 

Some programs have reported promising results, however. Humana, for instance, was able to notably increase the number of its own employees eating healthy food and exercising regularly through its Go365 program. 

Though the clinical payoffs remain up in the air for now, employers are still strongly committed to offering wellness benefits to employees. The latest study notes that 84% of employers offered wellness benefits in 2019, and a survey released last year by Business Group on Health found employers are spending three times as much today on wellness benefits compared to a decade ago.