Workplace wellness programs cover over 50 million workers and are intended to reduce medical spending, increase productivity, and improve well-being. Yet, limited evidence exists to support these claims. To help determine if these programs are worth their time and expense the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign designed and implemented a comprehensive workplace wellness program for a large employer with over 12,000 employees. They then randomly assigned program eligibility and financial incentives at the individual level. Over 56 percent of eligible (treatment group) employees participated in the program.
Guess what UIUC’s study found? To begin with, they found strong patterns of selection. During the year prior to the implementation of the program, the program’s participants already had lower medical expenditures and healthier behaviors than non-participants. So maybe it comes as no surprise that the study did not find significant causal effects of treatment on total medical expenditures, health behaviors, employee productivity, or self-reported health status in the first year.
“Workplace wellness is a big phenomenon in the U.S., but our program did not show it has a large effect on outcomes,” said David Molitor, a co-author on the study.
The study’s results contradict previous wellness industry estimates on medical spending and absenteeism suggesting wellness programs may act as a screening mechanism only. The observation is that it is likely that those employees who are already healthy typically choose to utilize wellness programs at a higher rate. The results kind of follow the old joke about gym memberships – people who join gyms are already in shape.
However, even in the absence of any direct savings, differential recruitment or retention of lower-cost participants could result in net savings for employers.
Researchers at UIUC were quick to say that their study does not discredit health programs, but rather show they aren’t a quick pay-off.
“If a company expects to see savings in the first year, it’s unlikely,” said Molitor. “But workplace wellness programs may be a good way for a firm to offer additional benefits even if it doesn’t help their bottom line.”