- A new study in JAMA Internal Medicine found an employer wellness program did not improve workers' health, adding more evidence to the pile that such programs don't actually move the needle on employee health.
This survey conducted by researchers with the University of Illinois, University of Chicago, Stanford University, the National Bureau of Economic Research and the Department of Veterans Affairs, examined the impact of an employee wellness program on more than 4,800 workers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign between August 2016 and April 2018.
Participants said they believed they were healthier and were also more likely to have a primary care physician. However, there was no concrete data that their health had improved.
Large businesses spend millions of dollars a year on employee wellness programs in an effort to curtail rising rates of obesity, diabetes and psychological issues such as depression. Though the Trump administration has been pushing for wellness programs to be included in health insurance coverage sold on the state and federal insurance exchanges, there's little concrete evidence any of these interventions are successful in making employees healthier.
This latest JAMA Internal Medicine study of employees at the University of Illinois’ Urbana-Champaign campus echoes this uncertainty.
The study tracked 4,834 employees for 20 months, including a control group of 1,534 workers, stratified by age, salary and employee type: faculty, academic professional or civil service.
The wellness program included an onsite biometric screening and survey, an online health risk assessment and a choice of wellness activities. The employees were given paid time off to participate and were also offered cash incentives of up to $200 to finish the risk assessment. They also received gift cards of up to $75 to participate in the physical activities.
While a small but statistically significant number of participants thought they had improved their body mass index, blood sugar levels and blood pressure, the data proved otherwise.
"The intervention had no significant effects on height, weight, waist circumference, body mass index, blood pressure, cholesterol, or glucose level," the study concluded. "There were also no significant changes in diagnoses of hypertension, diabetes, or hyperlipidemia after 12 or 24 months," the study found.
Researchers also noted that the beliefs and the actual results "demonstrate a mismatch between employee perceptions and physical and administrative measures of health."
A commentary that accompanied the study written by Jean Marie Abraham of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health concluded that employers should try and discern more of what their workers are looking for in such programs.
"With a representative picture of how much employees value or do not value aspects of their wellness programs, organizational leaders will be able to more effectively modify program designs or justify their decisions to pursue alternative investments in their workers’ health and well-being," she wrote.