Since I started researching and writing about workplace wellness for Workforce two years ago, there’s been one story that’s consistently creeps up every so often.
I’ve always seen it as one of the many tension points in workplace wellness: return on investment. Do wellness programs work from a financial perspective? Do they actually save plan members and organizations health care dollars?
[Other points of tension I’ve noticed: 1. financial incentives — are they coercive or not? Do they work or not? 2. Responsibility — is employee health and how employees eat, exercise, etc., outside of work an employer’s responsibility? Is that overstepping a line or a legitimate business decision? What areas of debate do you think are most noteworthy or intriguing tension points in workplace wellness?]
There are studies that claim wellness programs have clear financial benefits, and others that find the opposite. I’ve noticed the types of organizations that publish positive results are wellness companies themselves or the organizations that utilize wellness programs. The types of organizations that have published the more constructively critical results have been third party researchers like universities.
That’s why it was interesting to come across this New York Times story, “Workplace Wellness Programs Don’t Work Well. Why Some Studies Show Otherwise.” This story may be a bit dull for people not interested in the details of workplace wellness programs or the nuts and bolts of how different research studies are structured, but I found it enlightening.
The article compared two types of research studies: observational analyses vs. randomized controlled trial. Many of the analyses of wellness programs that show positive results are observational, it stated, and although there are some benefits to observational research, the randomized controlled trial is the “gold standard of medical research.”
You can check out this article’s deeper information on these two methods and what makes them different. I’ll focus on the implications of the methods on workplace wellness studies. An excerpt from the article:
“… Almost all of those analyses are observational, though. They look at programs in a company and compare people who participate with those who don’t. When those who participate do better, we tend to think that wellness programs are associated with better outcomes. Some of us start to believe they’re causing better outcomes.”
“The most common concern with such studies is that those who participate are different from those who don’t in ways unrelated to the program itself. Maybe those people participating were already healthier. Maybe they were richer, or didn’t drink too much, or were younger. All of these things could bias the study in some way.”
“The best of these observational studies try to control for these variables. Even so, we can never be sure that there aren’t unmeasured factors, known as confounders, that are changing the results.”
In June, a group of researchers published the results from the Illinois Workplace Wellness Study. They conducted a randomized control trial and analyzed the data as if it were an observational trial. Here are some of the results:
- People who participated in the wellness program went to the gym almost twice as often as those who did not participate, according to the observational analyses. The randomized control trial found that participants and nonparticipants went to the gym roughly the same amount of times a year.
- Participants spent $525 and $273 monthly on health care and hospital related costs, respectively, compared to nonparticipants who spent $657 and $387, according to the observational analyses. the randomized controlled trial found that wellness programs had little effect on spending.
I’d strongly recommend this to any benefits or wellness professional interested in the ROI of workplace wellness.
One more thought. A while ago I began hearing from some people or reading that wellness programs aren’t a health-care cost saver, really, but a retention and attraction tool for employees. If that’s true, maybe results like those seen in this Illinois Workplace Wellness Study are irrelevant and employers will continue to offer wellness programs no matter what the cost savings (or lack thereof) are. We’ll have to see what the future of workplace wellness has in store!
Andie Burjek is a Workforce associate editor. Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.