How Successful are Workplace Wellness Programs, Actually?

A new study exposes what the programs accomplished—and what they didn’t.

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To improve employee health, many companies are launching wellness programs. It seems to be a win-win: The employees can live longer, healthier, and happier lives, and the company benefits from employees with better attendance and work performance—not to mention lower healthcare costs. 

Workplace wellness programs vary widely from company to company, but the primary goals are to educate about health topics and promote healthy habits. These programs might include things like:

  • Classes by professionals like registered dietitians

  • Online classes about health topics

  • Smoking cessation assistance

  • On-site yoga or meditation classes

  • Healthy snacks on campus

  • Competitions for greatest miles ran or steps taken

  • On-site fitness center

  • Stress management classes

  • On-site health screenings or risk assessments

  • Or vaccine clinics.

All of these things provide value in their own right, but one study released April 2019 aimed to see the overall benefit of workplace wellness programs. The study surveyed close to 33,000 employees representing 160 different worksites. 

Some of the worksites implemented a multimodal wellness program covering eight health topics, including nutrition, exercise, and stress relief, led by health professionals. The other worksites used no workplace wellness program at all.

The researchers compared health measures at the beginning of the study to health measures at the end of the study a year and a half later. The assessed health measures included self-reported factors such as sleep quality, food choices, and amount of exercise per week. The researchers also assessed clinical markers of health (such as blood pressure) and job performance (such as absenteeism). 

The findings were not quite what they hoped.

Employees who had the wellness program *did* report some improvements, mainly in the self-reporting category. These employees claimed to engage in more physical activity and actively manage their weight more than they did before exposure to the wellness program.

That said, the wellness program appeared to have no significant effect on the employees’ sleep quality, food choices, blood pressure, body mass index, cholesterol levels, and job performance, compared to the employees who did not receive a workplace wellness program. #Bummer

There are a number of factors that could have made the wellness programs less effective than intended. For example, companies may need to reflect on how their own workplace culture affects employee health. After all, workplace burnout can have a major effect on both mental and physical health.  

There’s a caveat: It’s completely possible that the wellness programs improved health and quality of life in ways that can’t be measured, and it’s worth noting that things like blood pressure and BMI aren’t perfect representations of overall health. Plus, encouraging employees to exercise more regularly is a victory on its own.

However, the study suggests that workplace wellness programs may need mending to truly have an effect on employee health and quality of life.