A new study by researchers at the University of Chicago and Harvard, recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, sheds new light on the impact on increasingly popular workplace wellness programs on employees’ actual health outcomes. The effectiveness of these programs has not been extensively researched, as they are relatively new and rely on an evolving set of strategies and technologies, and studies so far have drawn mixed conclusions. The new research, Kaiser Health News senior correspondent Julie Appleby explains, had a more sophisticated design than many past studies in this area: The researchers randomly chose 20 BJ’s Wholesale Club outlets to offer a wellness program to all their employees, then compared their results with 140 other stores with no program, covering a total study group of almost 33,000 employees.
Unfortunately, the researchers found no significant correlation between the introduction of the wellness program and a strong improvement in employee health:
After 18 months, it turned out that yes, workers participating in the wellness programs self-reported healthier behavior, such as exercising more or managing their weight better than those not enrolled. But the efforts did not result in differences in health measures, such as improved blood sugar or glucose levels; how much employers spent on health care; or how often employees missed work, their job performance or how long they stuck around in their jobs.
The BJ’s wellness program offered small incentives for participation: Employees could receive about $250 in small-dollar gift cards for taking courses on nutrition, exercise, and other wellness topics. Around 35 percent of eligible employees completed at least one course throughout the duration of the study. One wellness program vendor commented to KHN that the limited impact of the program may have come down to the incentives being too small:
Jim Pshock, founder and CEO of Bravo Wellness, said the incentives offered to BJ’s workers might not have been large enough to spur the kinds of big changes needed to affect health outcomes. Amounts of “of less than $400 generally incentivize things people were going to do anyway. It’s simply too small to get them to do things they weren’t already excited about,” he said.