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.
Employee wellness or wellbeing has become a growing focal point of many organizations’ rewards programs, in an effort to help employees better maintain their physical, mental, emotional, and financial health. A new survey from Willis Towers Watson, however, suggests that most employees don’t think these programs are really encouraging them to live healthier lifestyles, with only 32 percent of employees agreeing that they were, compared to 56 percent of employers. David McCann recently covered the survey at CFO:
If you believe employers’ claims, they’re more concerned with their workers’ health than the workers are. While 87% of participating employers claimed that increasing employee engagement in health and well-being is a top priority, a substantially lower proportion (65%) of employee respondents rated managing their own health as a top priority.
Indeed, a majority (54%) of workers think their employer should financially reward them for living healthy lifestyles. And employees increasingly say they would participate in health and wellness programs only if offered incentives; 46% of them said so in 2017, compared with 35% in 2011.
Our own research at CEB, now Gartner, has also shown that employers are still working to achieve the right balance of features in their wellbeing programs and maximize their impact on employee engagement. In a peer benchmarking session at the CEB ReimagineHR summit in Washington, DC, last October, more rewards leaders said they expected wellness or wellbeing to be their number one area of change in 2018 than healthcare or retirement. Budgetary allocations for these programs are not growing, however, meaning HR leaders are being asked to do more with less.
When a district court in Washington, DC, ordered the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to rewrite its rules governing incentives for employee wellness programs last August, the court declined to vacate the commission’s current rules in order not to create disruptions in businesses that had already implemented programs based on them. The AARP, a lobbying group for older Americans and the plaintiff in the case against the EEOC, petitioned the court to amend its judgment and vacate the rules.
In its latest ruling, issued in late December, the court agreed to do so, but not until January 2019. Labor and employment attorney Jonathan E. O’Connell outlines the latest chapter of this legal drama at SHRM:
Also playing into the court’s decision to modify its prior judgement was the timeline offered by the EEOC for issuing its revised rule. The EEOC indicated that the new rule would not likely be ready until 2021. The court stated that such a lengthy delay was inconsistent with its expectation that the revised versions of the rule would be issued in a timely manner and thus also supported reconsideration of the court’s earlier decision. The court stated that “an agency process that will not generate applicable rules until 2021 is unacceptable” and strongly encouraged the EEOC to take steps to implement revised regulations faster.
Arguing on behalf of the EEOC, the Justice Department pushed back on that decision in a court filing this week, arguing that the court did not have jurisdiction to impose a deadline on the agency or force it to write new rules at all, Erin Mulvaney reports at the National Law Journal: