Wellness programs are becoming increasingly popular with employers that hope to encourage employees to live healthier lifestyles, thereby reducing absenteeism and health care costs and making the workforce more productive. But do wellness programs work? Recent data suggests they might not be the simple solution we’d like them to be.
Wellness Programs Are an Expensive Initiative
As a nation, we spend an average of $50 billion on wellness programs. For such a substantial investment, we’d expect to see impressive returns. However, according to research published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, there’s little evidence that employee health and wellness programs actually improve employee health.
What Do Wellness Programs Offer?
Wellness programs vary from company to company. Often, a wellness program will offer a free gym membership and support with other healthful behaviors. For example, the program might offer free support for smoking cessation, addiction counseling, or mental health aids.
It’s common for programs to include contests, with rewards either for those who hit specific targets or for the top performers. It’s this reward structure that can present issues for some wellness programs, because those who most need to take part in the program may find the targets too intimidating, and that could reduce participation.
Who Participates in Employee Health/Wellness Programs?
One of the key issues with workplace employee wellness programs is participation. HR departments feel they should provide a wellness program because it’s what other companies do. However, if the company doesn’t have a strong culture of health and fitness, the program may feel like nothing more than a token effort.
Employers have to walk a fine line between encouraging healthy habits and creating an environment where certain employees feel bullied or singled out. Running a weight loss challenge could alienate certain employees, either because they don’t need to lose weight (and so have no chance of earning rewards) or because they don’t wish to. Offering rewards based on physical activity levels could leave some employees thinking there’s no point in participating because they’re less active than the office triathlete or martial artist.
Health insurance premiums and health care costs are heavily driven by chronic conditions that are closely linked to behaviors, so it makes sense for employers to want to encourage healthful behaviors. However, the way many wellness programs work means the employees who participate in them are those who need them the least.
Why Do Wellness Programs Fail?
Wellness programs, when properly designed, can “gamify” health and fitness, encouraging people who might otherwise not be motivated to engage in healthful behaviors. However, they often fail because they don’t engage the right people or take an all-or-nothing approach, rewarding only the most successful participants rather than incentivizing slow and steady improvement and health-conscious behavior among those who find living a healthy lifestyle more challenging. Some of the key failure points for wellness programs include:
- Poor engagement: The target audience either isn’t interested in wellness or feels the program would be too challenging for them.
- Poor ROI: In some ways, this is linked to poor engagement. If the only people participating in wellness programs are already active, are at a healthy weight, and rarely engage in high-risk behaviors, the ROI on the program is unlikely to be significant.
- Incorrect or narrow focus: Programs sometimes make the mistake of focusing on simple “physical health metrics” such as weight or activity, rather than considering mental health, addiction or even financial well-being. A broader focus can be more beneficial.
- Failure to make a lasting change: Some employers run short-term challenges to encourage employees to lose weight, drink less alcohol or be more active but don’t change the overall culture of the company. If doughnuts and pizza are the staple rewards for working long hours, a weight loss challenge won’t achieve lasting results.
What Can Employees Do To Boost Workplace Well-Being?
Employees, especially those working for larger companies, may feel they’re powerless when it comes to influencing the decision-making of the companies they work for. There are, however, things employees can do to improve the wellness options their employers offer.
Some simple options include being more proactive about providing feedback on the programs that are already available and taking part in surveys when the HR department runs them. In addition, employees can make a difference by speaking out about the struggles they’re facing and how a healthy lifestyle benefits them.
When a wellness program is available, taking part and tactfully spreading the word about the program can go a long way. If a few people in a department are participating in a challenge or taking advantage of something offered through the wellness program, this might create a network effect and encourage others to participate, too.
How Employers Can Improve Their Wellness Programs
Employers can increase the uptake and effectiveness of their wellness programs by taking a broader approach to health and wellness. Instead of focusing on more traditional metrics such as steps taken or weight lost, consider other factors that impact well-being — shifting the health conversation to stress reduction, sleep, addiction, building sustainable healthy habits or coping with mental health issues, for instance.
Another consideration is the accessibility of the programs. Rather than pitching the program as a competition or setting lofty targets so only the most active/health-conscious individuals even consider taking part, make the program more flexible and set a variety of goals that might appeal to a wider range of people. For example, encouraging people to swap soda for water or have a banana at break time instead of a chocolate bar might produce better results than running a challenge to lose a certain number of pounds in a month. Indeed, this option might be more effective at encouraging healthy-weight people who have suboptimal diets to reconsider their own habits.
At FHE Health, we understand how challenging mental health can be for many employees, and we have a wide range of programs to support people from all walks of life. Call us at (833) 596-3502 to learn more about our programs and how they could become a useful part of your company’s wellness program.