A new study has found that a workplace wellness program had limited benefits for employees’ health.

woman doing yoga in the officeShare on Pinterest
Initiatives for wellness in the office — including, but not limited to, physical activities in the workplace — may not be effective for employees’ health.

New research has found that a workplace wellness program at the University of Illinois did not improve employees’ health, reduce the frequency of medical diagnosis, or reduce visits to attend medical appointments.

The study, published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, calls into question the value of workplace wellness programs and the industry that supports them.

The United States 2010 Affordable Care Act had three goals: make affordable health insurance available for more people, expand the Medicaid program, which offers people on low incomes medical support, and support new ways to deliver medical care.

In the wake of this last goal, many workplaces have implemented wellness programs, including offers of financial incentives for medical screenings, annual health risk assessments, and wellness activities, such as support to quit smoking, physical activities, or activities to help manage illnesses.

However, few randomized, controlled trials looking at the effects of these programs on employees’ health have taken place.

The authors of the present study set out to fill this gap in the literature.

Health equity resources

Visit our dedicated hub for an in-depth look at social disparities in health and what we can do to correct them.

Was this helpful?

The study took place at the University of Illinois between 9th August 2016 and 26th April 2018, involving 4,834 employees of the university. Of the total participants, 2,770 were women, and the mean age was 43.9 years.

The researchers assigned 3,300 people to the treatment group. These participants were eligible to take part in a typical workplace wellness program, involving workplace biometric screening and surveying, an online health risk assessment, and wellness activities.

The other participants acted as a control group and did not participate in the wellness program.

The study gathered responses from the participants after 12 and 24 months.

Information gathered included:

  • clinician-collected biometrics that give a general view of the health of a person
  • medical diagnosis and medical-use administrative claims, such as diagnoses for particular illnesses or visits to the hospital
  • self-reported health behaviors and beliefs, such as whether people thought they were likely to have high blood pressure or high cholesterol

After analyzing the data, the team behind the study found no significant differences in biometrics, medical diagnoses, or medical trips at either 12 or 24 months between the control group and the wellness program participants.

According to co-author of the study Prof. David Molitor of the Gies College of Business in Champaign, IL and the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, MA, “[m]any employers use workplace wellness programs in an attempt to improve employee health and reduce medical costs, but randomized evaluations of their efficacy are rare

“Our randomized evaluation found no significant effect of the program on employee health measures or medical use.”

However, more people in the wellness program did report having a primary care doctor at the end of the trial.

Those in the wellness program had an improved perception of their health across a range of factors, such as body mass index, cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and glucose levels.

For Prof. Molitor, “[a] significantly higher proportion of employees in the treatment group reported having a primary care doctor after 24 months. The workplace wellness program also significantly improved a set of employee health beliefs on average.

“But we found no significant effect of the program on employee health measures or medical use, demonstrating a mismatch between employee perceptions of workplace wellness programs and actual improvement in health.

“These findings shed light on employees’ perceptions of workplace wellness programs, which may influence long-run effects on health.”

According to the authors of the study, previous research has shown mixed results on the effectiveness of workplace wellness programs for employees’ health.

For Prof. Julian Reif, also of the Gies College of Business and the National Bureau of Economic Research, and co-author of the study, “[m]any prior studies found that workplace wellness programs improved health and reduced medical use, but those results were likely due to differences in who participates.

Our study complements recent randomized studies and demonstrates the value of using randomized evaluations to determine causal impact.”