Are Wellness Programs Failing?

Are Wellness Programs Failing?


Offering wellness programs to employees is a well-intentioned idea. Employers do so to “improve the health and well-being of their employees, increase their productivity, reduce their risk of costly chronic diseases, and improve control of chronic conditions,” according to RAND Corporation.

But a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) further indicates that cookie cutter or generic wellness programs do not always deliver on their intentions for a myriad of reasons. What sticks out as the most apparent cause plagues numerous well-intentioned programs: the shoe-horning of generic, canned solutions to a varying set of symptoms.

The clinically validated JAMA study involved 32,974 employees across 160 randomly selected worksites at a U.S. membership-only warehouse club chain. Twenty of those sites were offered an 18-month one-size-fits-all program that included eight modules focused on nutrition, physical activity, stress, and similar topics, all delivered by registered dietitians on the worksite. These employees were also offered a modest financial incentive for participating in the program – completing the entire program would result in about $250 going directly into their pockets.

Sounds pretty good, right? Maybe even familiar? But what actually happened?

In short, the employees who participated in the program self-reported being healthier. However, the clinical data did not show differences in health measures, like improved blood pressure and BMI or reductions in prescription medications. The results also did not show any workplace improvements, like reduced absenteeism or increased performance on the job.

This should come as no surprise, as multiple other studies have reported similar results over the years: one-size-fits-all wellness programs do not work.

For instance, in a 2018 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, researchers designed and ran a comprehensive workplace wellness program for a large employer in Illinois with over 12,000 employees. They found it to have no effect on total medical expenditures, health behaviors, employee productivity, or self-reported health status.

Similarly, a 2013 comprehensive look at numerous types of wellness program designs by RAND, which included almost 600,000 employees at seven employers, showed that wellness programs had little, if any, immediate effect on the amount employers spend on healthcare.

These studies have stirred an ongoing debate among employee benefits professionals around the question: are wellness programs actually worth their investment?

The answer is a surprising yes, but only if we move away from their generic design and delivery.  

We applaud organizations of all sizes for wanting to help improve their employees’ health and in taking steps to do so, and we want them to know it can be done – with the right approach.

Over the next several blog posts, we’ll outline why exactly programs like those referenced above so often fail as well as dive deeper into what the right approach looks like, starting with a review of the different types of wellness programs on the market and how they are delivered. It won’t be all business though – we promise there will be ice cream too!

Join the conversation.