A workplace wellness program is one of the strategies implemented by companies to improve physical health and job satisfaction among employees. However, is it an effective way to reduce healthcare costs and obtain a financial return on the investment?
A recent randomized clinical trial evaluated how effective it is to implement a wellness program on a large US retail company to improve health and economic outcomes in more than 32,000 employees.
Health insurance and healthcare costs is a common concern in large companies, and employers have implemented various ways to improve employee health and reduce costs. These interventions are apparently useful in the long-term, but there is not enough scientific evidence on the actual results of workplace wellness programs.
Effects of workplace wellness programs on trial
This randomized trial published on April 16, 2019 in the scientific journal JAMA evaluated a series of interventions in 20 treatment worksites comparing them with 140 control worksites that did not receive any wellness program. The intervention was focused on reducing stress, increasing physical activity, and achieving healthy nutrition with careful guidance by a registered dietitian.
The actual results of the workplace wellness programs were measured over 18 months through surveys of self-reported health and lifestyle habits, medical check-ups, healthcare costs, and employment outcomes (including absenteeism, job performance and job tenure).
The results of these clinical trials after 18 months showed a significant increase in self-reported participation in physical activity. Participants reported engaging in more regular exercise and actively managing weight compared to control worksites that did not receive any wellness program.
However, there was no significant change in the remaining parameters, including quality of sleep, healthy food choices, self-reported health, healthcare costs, and various clinical markers of health including blood pressure, body mass index, and others. There was not a significant change in job performance, absenteeism and job tenure compared to control workplaces that did not receive any wellness program.
What does it mean?
Most large companies spend extra money and time to include employees on workplace wellness programs. Their goal is trying to reduce healthcare costs and improve performance in the workplace. However, this randomized clinical trial on a large US warehouse retail company only showed an improvement in self-reported health behaviors with no actual evidence on health measures, healthcare spending, and employer outcomes. Self-reported health behaviors are highly biased, especially when not supported by actual improvements in health measures.
These results might be disappointing to the personnel department in large companies spending their capital with an expectation to obtain a financial return on their investment. According to this study, workplace wellness programs are not useful to deliver an economic benefit in the short term, and it does not change healthcare costs after one year and a half.
Additional evidence on workplace wellness programs is necessary to reach a definite conclusion, and the authors of this clinical trial report incomplete data on some of the evaluated outcomes as a limitation of their study. However, available data on the subject seems to point out that workplace wellness programs under the design of this clinical trial does not contribute to improving employee’s health and does not reduce healthcare costs.