Do Corporate Wellness Programs Live Up to the Hype?
Written by Caitlin Schille
Corporate wellness programs are all the rage. Companies like them for many reasons, including saving money on healthcare expenditures, increasing employee productivity, promoting good company culture, and attracting the best employees. As a result of Affordable Care Act (ACA) stipulations that encourage workplace wellness, wellness programs have become quite ubiquitous among American companies. They are seen as a way to invest in the vitality of employees and thus, in the vitality of the company. But, do these programs work? Do they actually save the company money and have measurable health benefits for participating employees?
These wellness programs come in too many shapes and sizes to give a simple answer. Some track exercise patterns, weight and other key elements of health to know how to reward their employees with better insurance, cash bonuses, etc. But other companies simply provide shoddy health education, or maybe a health screening.
Some studies indicate that companies with well-implemented wellness programs regularly outperform other companies on the stock market, suggesting real benefits of the company culture that wellness programs can help create. Other studies show that not all corporate wellness programs have an immediate financial advantage. Critics say these programs can be a huge waste of resources, while proponents urge companies to look at the long-term benefits. A study on PepsiCo’s wellness program found that it didn’t lower healthcare costs until the third year.
Employee engagement in wellness programs varies widely, which is a huge factor in how successful a program is. In a Fidelity survey, even when employees are financially incentivized to participate, participation is low. For instance, only 10% enrolled in health coaching services, but 53% elected to fill out a health questionnaire. A study from the Rand Corporation found that among participants in wellness programs, meaningful health improvements were seen in exercise frequency, weight control and more.
What do employees think of these programs?
- Only 24% of employees at companies that offer a wellness program actually participate in it.
- Only 12% of employees strongly agree that they have a substantially higher overall well-being because of their employer.
- About 85% of companies with more than 1,000 employees offer a wellness program. At these companies, however, only 60% of employees are aware of the wellness program.
- Most employees believe their job is a detriment to their ability to achieve higher well-being.
Other data on the effectiveness of corporate wellness programs is mixed. Lots of factors make it difficult to quantify the true effectiveness of wellness programs. For instance, perhaps a wellness program has promoted healthy habits that will keep employees healthier and free from chronic disease in 20 years, but this will not be captured in a study of five years’ worth of data.
Criticisms of corporate wellness programs often arise from programs with stringent health goals, such as achieving a certain Body Mass Index (BMI) or a certain blood pressure. Striving for weight loss and numbers instead of holistic wellness can end up being harmful, not helpful, to employees.
While the effectiveness of corporate wellness programs is debated, the evidence seems to show that a well-planned, thoughtfully-implemented wellness program aimed at promoting health in a holistic, whole-body/whole-mind way will reap benefits for employees and employers.
fortune.com, Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (JOEM), nytimes.com, rand.org