An Update on Workplace Wellness Programs

By May 5, 2016 January 28th, 2020 No Comments

Large employers have put in place policies and procedures related to occupational health and safety for many, many years.  This is especially true of companies that operate in industries that present clear physical hazards for blue collar workers, such as mining, heavy manufacturing, construction and environmental cleanup.

Whether managers developed these practices because they thought it was the right thing to do, because they believed it was ultimately good for business or because regulators demanded it, the traditional aim has always been pretty narrow—to reduce the risk of work-related injuries from onsite accidents.  However, the past couple of decades have witnessed the emergence of company-sponsored programs designed to do something much more ambitious—to improve the overall health and well-being of the people who work there, even white collar staff.  Today, these programs fall under the heading of “workplace wellness” or “corporate wellness.”

The motivation behind workplace wellness programs is that if employers can get workers to take better care of themselves by quitting smoking, eating healthier and getting more exercise, these lifestyle improvements will be reflected in better health, more productivity and lower health care expenses.  With the effects of chronic illnesses such as heart disease, obesity and diabetes accounting for a staggering three-fourths of health care costs, it’s easy to understand why this theory has large employers spending an estimate $2 billion each year.  Weight loss is a particular focus, since helping obese employees get to normal weight (or even to overweight) could reduce companies’ healthcare and sick time-related productivity costs by an average of 9%.

  • About one in three employers now offer employees a program specifically designed to help them lose weight.
  • Another 7% are planning to add such a program sometime this year.
  • 9% of companies even offer employees discounts on health insurance premiums in exchange for participating in a weight loss program.

But what are these organizations actually getting for their money?

First, here’s the good news.  Studies show that workplace wellness programs do generate a significant ROI—saving employers at least $3 for every dollar spent on wellness programs.  Now for the bad news.  These programs typically fail to reach their full potential because fewer employees than expected choose to participate.  Only about 20% of employees with access to a company wellness program take advantage of it.  This is despite the fact that some employers require non-participating employees to pay extra toward their healthcare coverage.  For example, CVS employees who refused to submit to health screenings were required to pay $50 per month extra for health insurance.

A 2012 analysis performed by the Rand Corporation and sponsored by the U.S. Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services found that those who participated in wellness programs showed “statistically significant and clinically meaningful improvements in exercise frequency, smoking behavior, and weight control, but not cholesterol control,” and that there were no “statistically significant decreases in cost and use of emergency department and hospital care.” However, they theorized that these costs would come down over time if employees stuck with the programs.

Fewer than half of employees in companies with a workplace wellness program agree to a screening, and of those who are identified as requiring intervention, less than a fifth end up participating in the program.  Although a review of literature by the California Health Benefits Review Program showed that those who participate in smoking cessation programs are more likely to quit smoking, they found that randomized controlled trials showed that wellness programs have (at least so far) had no effect on lowering blood pressure, blood sugar or cholesterol levels.

The fundamental truth is that making lifestyle changes is usually difficult, and workplace wellness programs need to be designed to help keep the motivation going for the workers who are enrolled and to showcase their successes so that others will come on board. There are no overnight improvements, and employees need to stick with the program for a significant amount of time for the overall benefits to become apparent.  Changes in the workplace are required, as well as individual lifestyle changes for each employee. For example, taking small steps like removing the pizza, donuts and soft drinks from the company cafeteria and substituting healthy nuts and fruit might go some way toward making wellness programs work better.

It is certainly true that workplace wellness programs raise some serious questions—about the rights of employers and employees as well as about their longer-term effectiveness.  Despite these questions about philosophy and approach, though, it’s clear that companies and their workers have a shared interest in better health.

The jury is still out, and the Rand study showed that more research is necessary in order to tailor workplace wellness programs so that they are effective.  That said, there is broad agreement that organizations can play a very positive role in encouraging healthier lifestyle habits among their employees. The real question might be whether enough employees are ready to let them.

As chiropractic physicians, we work closely with our patients to help them develop healthy lifestyle habits—especially in the areas of nutrition, exercise, sleep and stress management—that help prevent illness and injury.  If you own or manage a local business and are considering a workplace wellness program, we can help!