Do Workplace Wellness Programs Work? Yes, But it Depends…

September 18, 2014 Reforming Health Blog

By Naomi Freundlich

There’s been a lot of controversy recently about workplace wellness programs: Do they save money for employers on healthcare costs? Can they produce measurable benefits for employee health? Do they unfairly punish people who are unable to participate? Are these programs just a ploy to shift medical costs to unhealthy employees?

Recently Austin Frakt and Aaron Carroll revisited these questions in a piece for the New York Times’ Upshot column, “Do Workplace Wellness Programs Work? Usually Not.” As the title makes clear, Frakt and Carroll come down on the side of the skeptics. I have always appreciated Frakt and Carroll’s analysis of healthcare economics but this time I think they might have missed the mark. A recent analysis of the value of health promotion programs in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (JOEM) has a similar title; “Do Workplace Health Promotion (Wellness) Programs Work?” Instead of answering “Usually Not,” the twenty-plus authors of the JOEM article—all experts in the health promotion field—conclude that some wellness programs work superbly while others are abysmal failures. What separates bad, good and great programs, according to the JOEM authors, is basically “a combination of good design built on behavior change theory, effective implementation using evidence-based practices, and credible measurement and evaluation.” In short, the answer to the question really should be “It Depends…”

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In the end, by focusing only on the shortcomings of corporate wellness programs, the Times piece misses the true potential of promoting prevention and healthy behaviors in the workplace. Businesses are faced with a workforce whose demographics mirror the American population as a whole; we are aging, have high rates of obesity, are inactive and have unhealthy diets that raise the risk of chronic disease like diabetes, hypertension, and cancer. Employers care about having healthy employees, who are “present” at work—engaged, happy, energetic, and committed to their jobs. Since Americans spend one-third of their time at work, promoting health and wellbeing while they are on the job can be an extremely powerful way to positively impact the overall health of our population. That benefit is neither questionable nor controversial.

 

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