Short-term wellness programs offered by employers have a two-pronged goal: to improve the health of employees and reduce healthcare costs and utilization.
Now, in a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers have found that while such wellness programs are fairly effective at promoting healthy behaviors, there's little to no impact on healthcare costs.
Even the positive health effects observed in participating employees were less than desired, with health behaviors improving over a short period of time but little impact shown on clinical measures of health, including blood pressure, cholesterol and body mass index.
First, the bad news -- wellness programs didn't seem to have a significant effect on medical and pharmaceutical spending and utilization. They also demonstrated little impact on employment outcomes such as job performance, tenure and absenteeism. This raised the question of whether wellness programs were truly worth the investment.
Those conclusions were reached after the researchers implemented wellness programs at 40 different work sites, featuring different modules focusing on a different aspect of employee health, including nutrition, stress reduction and physical activity. Results were gleaned after 18 months.
The good news is that there were some positive health behaviors observed in participants, though not as much as hoped. Work sites with wellness programs saw employees engage in regular exercise at an 8.3 percent higher rate than at other work sites, and wellness program participants also actively managed their weight at a 13.6 percent higher rate.
There was little to no effect on other outcomes, however, including food choices, sleep quality and self-reported health.
WHAT ELSE YOU SHOULD KNOW
A separate study recently published in the American Journal of Health Promotion found that workplace health promotion programs are increasing in the U.S. Nearly half of all workplaces in the nation offer some level of health promotion or wellness programs and 17 percent of workplaces with 50 or more employees offer comprehensive workplace health promotion programs.
The percentage of worksites with a workplace health promotion program increased with the size of the employer, ranging from 39 percent of worksites with 10-24 employees, to 60 percent of worksites with 50-99 employees, to 92 percent of worksites with 500 or more employees.
Almost 30 percent of worksites offered some type of program to address physical activity, fitness or sedentary behavior; 19 percent offered tobacco cessation programs; and 17 percent offered obesity or weight management programs.
The findings come as somewhat of a surprise given prior expert testimony on the matter. In October 2017, experts told the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions that the simplest way to reduce healthcare costs is to promote a healthier lifestyle among the U.S. population.
The testimony was framed in the context of employer-sponsored health plans, and focused on initiatives employers can take to improve employees' health and mitigate the financial burden to the healthcare system.
One factor that may make a difference is that some programs offer financial incentives to participating employees, which may spur more pronounced health improvement efforts among participants.