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May 27, 2020

Workplace wellness programs have little impact on overall staff health, study finds

They may not be worth the investment, University of Illinois researchers say

Wellness Prevention
Workplace wellness programs rawpixel/Unsplash

Employee wellness programs might not be having the impact employers hoped they would on overall staff health, according to a new study.

Many employers have established workplace wellness programs aimed at improving the health of their staffs and reducing medical costs. But they may not actually work. 

A new study suggests such programs have little effect on clinical measures. 

Researchers from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign found the programs improve the way the average employee feels about their health and increase the number of employees who have a regular primary care physician. But they do not significantly impact measured health metrics, like blood pressure or cholesterol, or the use of health care services.

Though employers concerned about their staff's health during the COVID-19 pandemic might find these programs even more attractive, the researchers said they may not be worth the investment. 

"At a time where concern about health and safety in the workplace is paramount, employers could use wellness initiatives to signal care for their workers," study co-author David Molitor, an assistant professor of finance and economics, told UPI.

But he said these programs should not be considered a replacement for measures designed to ensure workplace safety, like providing personal protective equipment.

The study evaluated a two-year workplace wellness initiative at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The program, which included 3,300 employees, offered financial incentives for completing health checkups and participating in certain health and wellness programs, including a smoking cessation program.

Molitor and his team compared the health care outcomes and beliefs of these employees to the 1,584 employees not enrolled in the program. Overall, 56% of the employees in the program underwent health screenings and an online health risk assessment in the first year. Thirty-one percent also participated in wellness-related events that year.

But the wellness program had little effect on the participants' weight, blood pressure and cholesterol. The risk for high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity was about the same for those who enrolled in the program and those that did not. 

The researchers also did not observe any differences between the two groups in regard to doctors' office visits, hospital visits or emergency department visits. 

Still, employees in the program were 5% more likely to have a regular primary care doctor and to feel more positive about their health.

The study was published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

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