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Wellness Program Success? It's a Long Shot

Only savvy employers with a commitment to thoughtful, clear and open communication will be able to launch and maintain a successful wellness program.

March 10, 2014
Related Topics: Benefits Design and Communication, Health and Wellness, The Latest

In January, the journal Health Affairs published an in-depth study of PepsiCo’s employee wellness program. The research is based on seven years’ worth of data from program participants.

In some of the most damning conclusions about corporate wellness efforts, the research team wrote that the program yields “no significant effect on health care costs.” The Rand Corp.’s Soeren Mattke, a co-author of the study, told Reuters the research shows that “blanket claims of ‘wellness saves money’ are not warranted.”Retiree health care chart 1 November 2013

He’s absolutely right. Any employer who launches a wellness program has the deck stacked against it from the start — for four big reasons:

1. Your employees are delusional and don’t want to be “well.”

In the PepsiCo study, researchers found “lifestyle interventions” — health risk assessments, telephonic wellness coaching and so forth — were ineffective in reducing health care costs. It’s not surprising; human instinct is to view ourselves in a more positive light than is accurate, and we tend to reject delayed gratification.

Most of us don’t think we’re that unhealthy, so we lie on health risk assessments, knowingly or unknowingly.

For those of us who acknowledge that we’ve got work to do, it’s rare that a health risk assessment will spur us to do the difficult, long-term work that’s required to permanently change our behavior. More often, it’s because one of those risks catches up to us that we embrace wellness.

Bottom line: A typical wellness program will be ineffective on people who aren’t truly ready to get well. So before you call a wellness vendor, convene some employee focus groups to vet employees’ willingness and readiness to take steps toward wellness, and the personal and professional barriers they perceive against it.

2. Your company culture doesn’t support wellness.

Is the break room poster promoting your wellness program right next to a vending machine filled with Snickers and Pringles? Have you given employees slick pedometers or Fitbits and touted the benefits of walking, but locked your building’s stairwells?

Actions speak louder than words. Employees will notice the little things that you do or don’t do to gauge how seriously you believe in a wellness program. Did your CEO take a biometric screening? Are employee leaders that your workforce recognizes and respects serving as wellness champions?

Your investment will show workers whether they should invest their time and energy as well or just show up for freebies.


Bottom line: A typical wellness program will be ineffective on people who aren’t truly ready to get well.

3. You’re being sold a bill of goods on ROI.

An important fact: Health spending increases are trending downward nationwide — creeping up just 4 percent last year, according to news reports — but has little to do with wellness programs.

Lower than normal spending generally is credited to a larger number of Americans enrolled in high-deductible health plans, slower-than-hoped economic recovery as well as cheaper prescription drugs and medical goods.

Still, lower health care spending generally is the go-to ROI number for wellness vendors, which is fine, but it’s misleading at best and inaccurate at worst to directly tie health cost savings to wellness alone. Make sure that if you’re going to hire a wellness program vendor, that the company gives you realistic ROI expectations.

Then, as you push forward beyond examining return on investment in terms of hard numbers, it’s also important to remember that an effective program must take a broader view of the value of wellness. Is your program tied to company culture? How? Is it helping improve productivity or engagement? Does it improve the valueof benefits by getting people better engaged in programs overall? These questions are just as critical to consider as “Is it saving money?”

4. The wellness well has been poisoned.

After the Penn State University wellness program debacle — an uproar that started last year when two professors railed against the university’s proposed wellness sticks, including $1,200 fines for employees who failed to take a health risk assessment and health screening — here are a few words some use to describe corporate wellness programs: coercive, invasive, discriminatory, draconian and ineffective. Not that it’s all Penn State’s fault, but it’s clear that wellness has a growing PR problem.

Only savvy employers with a commitment to thoughtful, clear and open communication will be able to launch and maintain a successful wellness program.

Kelley M. Butler is the editorial director at Benz Communications, an HR/benefits communication strategy firm. Prior to joining Benz, Butler spent 11 years at Employee Benefit News, including seven as editor-in-chief. To comment, email Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.

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