A team of researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign conducted a two-year study on the efficacy of workplace wellness programs. Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), this study comes as the second installment of the Illinois Workplace Wellness Study (check out the Wellable blog, Whiteboard Wednesday, or podcast on the first study). In their previous research, the study authors found that employees with poorer health and higher medical costs (and, therefore, more to gain from wellness programs) were, unfortunately, less likely than their healthier colleagues to participate in these programs. In the most recent study, more concerns about program effectiveness have been raised.

Between 2016 and 2018, researchers conducted a randomized clinical trial that followed over 4,800 employees at the University of Illinois. The employees were invited to join a wellness program that included incentives and paid time off for participation in an on-site biometric screening, health risk assessment, and a variety of wellness activities. Researchers focused on the employees’ self-reported health beliefs, clinical outcomes, and medical use and compared them with a control group of employees that did not have access to the program.

At the end of the two years, they discovered no significant improvements in clinician-collected biometrics, claims related to medical diagnoses, or use of healthcare services when compared to employees in the control group. However, those in the wellness program were more likely to report having a primary care physician and an improved outlook on their own health and behaviors.

Coupled with their previous research, these results seem to suggest a less-than-perfect impression of how effective wellness programs can be at reducing costs and providing measurable improvements in workforce wellness. However, it is important to distinguish what is and is not being measured in the studies.

Limitations Of The Study

While the results may sound unenthusiastic, the study approaches employee wellness in a limited way. When considering the full scope of a wellness program’s impact, employers should not only look at the potential for lowered healthcare costs (the return on investment, or ROI) but rather the value on investment (VOI). While cost savings are important, VOI also includes talent retention and attraction, employee productivity and performance, referral rates, and work satisfaction. While some of these metrics can be tracked, others go beyond data alone. Thus, it is difficult to measure a wellness program’s impact fully and accurately.

Supporting mental and physical health endeavors result in better focus and productivity. Sitting too long, for example, corresponds to cognitive decline; more active employees are likely to perform better mentally at their job tasks. Employees involved in a wellness program are less likely to take as many sick days or time off. Additionally, stress levels are reduced when employees feel that they have the resources and benefits available to take care of their well-being. Other than relying on self-reporting by the employee, it is difficult to accurately and consistently measure aspects that affect productivity, such as stress levels, mental focus, and energy. Furthermore, there is usually not a control group available to compare outcomes.

Wellness programs also boost morale, which impacts job satisfaction and employee retention rates. Workers today want a company that cares about their well-being, making recruitment easier and less costly for employers with generous benefits. These retention and recruitment savings (just like profit increases due to increased productivity) are also difficult to quantify because they are influenced by so many things—some of which are not even within a business’s control, like the labor market.

In light of this, this study can be quite encouraging because it improved employee’s outlooks about their own health and behaviors. While this may not have translated to measurable data, it potentially suggests improved mental clarity, energy levels, emotional wellness and overall happiness, and work-life satisfaction.

Some of these results could also end up revealing a difference in clinical outcomes and spending over a longer period of time than just two years. Oftentimes, healthy habits take consistent dedication to reverse years of poor choices. In other cases, many on the path to wellness have to try several programs and activities before finding one that is most effective for reaching their personal goals.

Additionally, the study made use of biometric screenings and health risk assessments, both of which have been proven to be ineffective. When two-thirds of a wellness program are based on ineffective interventions, it should come as no surprise that the results are less than stellar.

Employee Feedback Better Than Narrow Metrics

Employers that are frustrated by a lack of data when it comes to evaluating all aspects of their wellness programs need not lament. Quantitative screenings and clinical markers may be attractive, but do not provide quality insight. Short-term cost savings won’t provide the full picture, and employers should continue to keep in mind that a variety of different metrics together may provide a more in-depth and accurate look at how their wellness programs are functioning.

Finding out what employees value and engage with through their own feedback can be just as (or even more) informative as reviewing the numbers on healthcare costs, time taken off, and profits. Tracking participation, clearly communicating benefits and offerings, and knowing what employees value the most can best direct employers towards creating effective and engaging benefits that result in improved productivity and job satisfaction.

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