Eating better and exercising more are common sense things that most of us should do. And so it makes sense that a program at work that encourages these things will help us be healthier, which will, in turn, mean we'll show up to work and not need quite so much health care.

That's a common thought and that's what previous studies have shown.

But, a new study flips that on its head. And we should all pay attention because this is the first randomized-controlled study to look at wellness programs

Here's what researcher Damon Jones and his team found at the University of Illinois did and what they found.

Randomized

Jones invited the staff at the university--around 12,000 people to participate, but only 5,000 wanted to participate. Of these 5000, one-third were assigned to a control group, while the others joined this wellness program.

This is important because Jones wanted to see the impact of a wellness program, not just see if people who used wellness programs were healthier. This random assignment of people who showed interest ensured that the groups weren't favoring healthy people.

All participants received biometric screenings and health risk assessments. Then people chosen for the study were enrolled in activities, such as weight management programs, stop smoking programs and tai chi. 

What happened?

At the end of the year, they looked at the two groups again--the ones who went through the programs and the ones who said they wanted to but were assigned to be in the control group. And researchers found that almost everything was the same between the two groups. (Well, statistically insignificant, anyway.) Participants were happier at work, and had a slightly hire job satisfaction. But that's it.

All of the other reasons we do wellness programs didn't pan out.

  • Participants didn't take fewer sick days than the control groups.
  • They weren't less likely to quit.
  • They weren't more likely to get a promotion.
  • They spent the same on medication and hospital visits.

In other words, it did no good--except for a little bit of extra happiness. (Which isn't a bad thing, but probably not worth the cost.)

What about the people who didn't want to participate?

This is the most interesting thing and probably why wellness program studies have touted success. These people tended to be older, spent more on healthcare already, or spent nothing on health. The former were already sick, and the latter were already healthy enough that they saw no reason to try to improve that. 

They also found people at the ends of the economic spectrum tended not to participate--the poor and the rich. The people who didn't want to participate were already less likeliy to exercise than people who did want to participate.

Should you end your wellness program?

Now, I've written numerous articles about wellness programs, and for the most part, I have liked them, as long as they were voluntary. And I think having access to a gym, or a cafeteria with healthy food are both good things. 

But, if you think it's going to give you a massive boost to your bottom line, it probably won't. It may make you a more attractive employer, and it does boost employee satisfaction a little, but if this study holds true, it's not likely to cure your health care woes.

So, my advice, think of it like all the other perks--lunch on Fridays, dry cleaning pickup, and bus passes. It makes for a better office, but not necessarily with a huge impact on the bottom line.