Although more employers are turning to workplace wellness programs to improve workers' health and save on healthcare costs, a new study shows they aren't improving health metrics.
Researchers found that workplace wellness participants exercise more, actively manage their weight and have other healthier behaviors than their peers outside of the programs. However, they don't have lower body mass index, blood pressure or cholesterol, according to an analysis published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association. It's the first large-scale, randomized clinical trial examining the causal health effects of the employee programs.
The study also found the programs did not result in a significant reduction in healthcare spending or utilization of healthcare services.
"These findings suggest that employers who may be thinking about investing in workplace wellness programs or people who manage public dollars that might be interested in workplace wellness programs perhaps should temper their expectations of such programs to generate a large return on investment in the short run," said study co-author Dr. Zirui Song, assistant professor of healthcare policy and medicine at Harvard Medical School.
More than 4,000 employees of big box retailer BJ's Wholesale Clubs participated in the study's wellness program over 18 months. But there was little difference in productivity between the control and wellness program groups.
Song said it was possible that the study was too short to see a positive clinical difference or that the program's impact was short-lived.
Other studies have found mixed results from workplace wellness programs. One trial published last year by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign found no significant difference in the health or healthcare costs over one year. The researchers suggested participants likely were already healthy and had low healthcare costs.
Another study in Health Affairs from Song and Dr. Katherine Baicker, dean of the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, found that medical costs were reduced by $3.27 for every $1 spent on wellness programs. Costs associated with absenteeism fell by $2.73 for each dollar spent.
Employers continue to buy into workplace wellness programs, in part thanks to Affordable Care Act incentives. The law increased the maximum award employers can give employees if they participate in the initiatives.
In 2018, 82% of large firms and 53% of small employers across the country offered a wellness program, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey.
"It just makes sense that if my population does engage in healthy behaviors they will have healthier outcomes and they will be more productive," said Mark Brittingham, CEO and co-founder of BSDI, a New Jersey-based corporate wellness technology provider.
Brittingham said the JAMA study results didn't make sense since participants reported they exercised more but their health didn't improve. He suspected their activity may have been overreported.
"No company should feel that they can just go drop a wad of cash on a program like this and magically get a reward in terms of medical savings over the short term," Brittingham said. "Any vendor that says in 18 months we're going to show you a huge return on your investment is simply not telling you the truth."