Employee Wellness Programs are Worthless

It’s no surprise that people may try things offered to them for free or at a discount, but they will only continue with them if they find real value. Perceived value is difficult to measure, and it varies widely from person to person.

Take gym memberships. People who want to work out in gyms have them. Others may be convinced to try out a gym through some incentive, as many do following their New Year’s resolutions, but soon those inclined to work out are still at it, and most of those coerced by the incentive, those who were not predisposed to working out in the first place, have fallen back onto the couch.

Ditto that for most weight loss, stress management and smoking cessation programs. Success depends on an individual’s motivations and effort more than an external nudge to join such a program. And the effort to stick with such a program is entirely one of self-motivation. The incentives are borne within, they are not external, and we’ll take action when we’re ready, if we’re ever ready.

That’s the problem with employee wellness programs. They may get people to try new things, but after a bump in initial interest their perceived value quickly fades. And for the companies that sponsor them, after only a few months of implementing such programs they show no value at all.

From a study published in JAMAworksites with the wellness program had an 8.3-percentage point higher rate of employees who reported engaging in regular exercise and a 13.6-percentage point higher rate of employees who reported actively managing their weight, but there were no significant differences in other self-reported health and behaviors; clinical markers of health; health care spending or utilization; or absenteeism, tenure, or job performance after 18 months.

Companies spend an awful lot on these programs, for which they see little real results. Sure they may make some employees feel good, and yes they provide discounts to employees who would have used the services in the first place – all that is good and valuable – but if a company seeks a positive impact on employee wellness and the cost savings associated with healthier and more motivated employees, they should look elsewhere.

Despite the poor results of such programs they are very widespread. From the introduction to the study: Workplace wellness programs have become increasingly popular as employers have aimed to lower health care costs and improve employee health and productivity. In 2018, 82% of large firms and 53% of small employers in the United States offered a wellness program, amounting to an $8 billion industry. This growth has been aided by public investments such as the Affordable Care Act, which included funds to promote the development of workplace wellness programs. Quite the scam.

The most telling example of how most employees greet most of these programs with a yawn is the biometric screening. Offered by almost all wellness programs, the screening consists of an annual checkup and the completion of a simple questionnaire. It can yield valuable information about a person’s health and possible risks they face. Many companies even offer a financial incentive, such as a $25 to $50 per month decrease in health insurance premiums, for participating. Given all that, still only 42% of employees ever complete the screening.

Companies truly interested in boosting employee health, decreasing healthcare costs, pumping up productivity and reducing absenteeism should look somewhere other than employee wellness programs. These goals can be much better met by companies that take a hard look at workplace conditions, company culture and management demands. This is hard to do. It’s much easier to just bring in a cookie cutter wellness program and say, “I tried.”

If your company chooses to take this route other than implementing the difficult project of truly building a supportive and healthy workplace, don’t expect much. You may look good for a while. You may be able to point to the wellness program and say, “look: we care!” But it’s not going to work.

True change comes from within. Both for the individual that wants to improve their health and for companies that want to improve working conditions. Outsourcing such projects will never replace the hard work necessary to make yourself, and your company, better.