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Programs Aimed At Improving Employee Wellness Yield Little Benefits, Says Study

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Researchers from Harvard University investigated whether workplace wellness programs that encourage employees to adopt a healthier lifestyle and cut healthcare spending are effective or not.

It turns out that the $8 billion industry does not offer significant benefits in the short term. The team conducted an 18-month study across 160 worksites and observed nearly 33,000 employees to see the impacts of workplace wellness programs.

They revealed their findings in The Journal of the American Medical Association on Tuesday, April 16.

Workplace Wellness Programs Are Largely Ineffective

The researchers randomly picked 20 worksites that offer workplace wellness programs to its employees. The 140 worksites served as the control group.

The employees who enrolled to workplace wellness programs filled out questionnaires about their health and lifestyle, underwent medical testing (including blood pressure and blood glucose monitoring), and attended up to eight classes on nutrition and exercise.

After the experiment, the researchers compared data from two groups. They shared that employees who enrolled to workplace wellness programs self-reported healthier behaviors.

The worksites that offered wellness programs had an 8.3 percent higher rate of employees who exercise regularly and 13.6 percent higher rate of better weight management compared to the rest of the worksites observed during the experiment.

However, employees who enrolled in workplace wellness programs do not reap significant benefits. The program had no significant impact when it comes to health and behavioral measures, including sleep quality and food choices. It also did not affect absenteeism, job tenure, job performance, and healthcare use or spending.

"Our findings show that health behaviors can respond to a workplace wellness program," stated Zirui Song, an assistant professor of health care policy and medicine and co-author of the study, "but they also temper expectations of realizing large returns on investment in the short term."

Workplace Wellness Programs: Are They A Good Investment?

Aside from private spending, the Affordable Care Act also allocated public funding for workplace wellness programs to help improve the overall well-being of the workplace and reduce medical costs. Previous research suggested that investment on such programs can generate savings.

"As we grow to understand how best to encourage healthy behavior, it may be that workplace wellness programs will play an important role in improving health and lowering the cost of health care," explained Song. "For now, however, we should remain cautious about our expectations from such interventions."

The researchers admitted that further research is needed to measure the long-term effects of workplace wellness programs.

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