America's health and wellness challenges were clear before coronavirus struck. Now the pandemic has blown them wide open, revealing gaping disparities and showing how many of us are more vulnerable to disease and disability because of our less-than-ideal lifestyles.
For employers, this has been a horrifying reminder of just how much your employees' health impacts your business. Employee wellness programs were popular before Covid -- 53 percent of smaller employers offer them and 81 percent of large ones -- and, after Covid, it's likely even more businesses will consider adding to their offerings.
That seems logical, but according to a rigorous new study it also might be a massive waste of money. Researchers randomly assigned employees at dozens of BJ's Wholesale Club stores to either participate in the company's wellness program or not and then tracked them for three years. They found wellness programs were pretty much worthless, the study authors, the University of Chicago's Katherine Baicker and Harvard's Zirui Song, reported in recent a Washington Post op-ed.
No health benefits, no cost savings
First, what exactly did the study find? While those who were assigned to participate in the programs showed a modest uptick in self-reported healthy behaviors -- the number of employees who said they exercised improved by 11 percent, for instance -- when the researchers measured hard-and-fast outcomes like obesity rates and blood pressure, they saw no difference between those who enrolled and those who didn't.
And how about health care costs? After all, one of the big motivations for employers for introducing these programs is saving money on employees' health insurance. Here, again, the wellness programs disappointed. The researchers found no difference between costs for the two groups. Nor did they find any evidence that job performance went up for those enrolled in the wellness program.
What's going on here?
Finding exactly zero benefits for these programs is surprising. Companies don't generally like to throw money away on programs that don't work, and plenty of previous studies have suggested these efforts pay off for employees. So why exactly did this particular study offer such different and discouraging results?
The explanation likely lies in the study design. Most previous studies compared employees who chose to participate in employee wellness and those who did not. But as the authors explain, those two groups differ on a lot more than just their enrollment status. People who say yes to gym discounts and lectures from dieticians are already people who are more inclined to care about their health. So perhaps it's no shock they're healthier after taking part. They were probably healthier than their uninterested co-workers to start with.
This study avoids this problem by randomly assigning employees to either participate or not. In this way the researchers ensured the two groups were effectively identical. And when they did that just about all the benefits of these programs disappeared.
Should you scrap your company's wellness program?
This is, of course, only one study. But it is an incredibly rigorous one, and some other studies have also found almost no health benefits or cost savings from employee wellness programs. Which should probably make entrepreneurs think long and hard about the value of these initiatives.
But that isn't the same as saying they're all completely worthless. There are a ton of different programs, so perhaps there are some out there that outperform their peers. Or you may have different aims entirely for your company's wellness program. "Employees seemed to value the benefit," the study authors write. "If employers are seeking to add benefits that workers value (or attract workers who value those benefits), the programs may be worth it."
So if your wellness program is a carrot to attract the health conscious in a brutal job market, then carry on. If you actually expect it to make your more gym- and vegetable-phobic team members suddenly change their ways, saving you money, maybe give wellness programs a pass instead.