Study Suggests Reasons Most Physical Wellness Programs Don’t Work

For one thing, many wellness program incentives are geared to those who are already healthy.

Earlier this year, a trial administered by researchers from the University of Chicago and Harvard among a large group of employees found a couple of positive self-reported outcomes by participants after 18 months of using a physical wellness program, but measures of health improvements and employer cost savings were not significant.

And, according to, a strategic planning firm, a Rand study found that the average annual health care expense savings tied to physical wellness programs is statistically insignificant.

After years of research, believes it has revealed why most wellness programs don’t work.

For one thing, contends many wellness program incentives are geared to those who are already healthy. They include incentives such as gym memberships and health care premium reductions for achieving certain biometrics.

For those employees who know they have health challenges, the focus on a single set of numbers or going to a gym is discouraging. People struggling with their weight frequently feel self-conscious going to a gym, and a person already struggling with their cholesterol numbers is going to find certain biometrics unattainable. suggest that a plan that provides incentives for logging food intake will allow the employees with weight-control issues to take steps to improve their health without making them feel like they are “exposed,” as they might feel at a gym. In addition, it says, the details about reasonable accommodations for people with medical conditions shouldn’t be relegated to the small print; it should be a point of pride that the wellness program is for everybody.

Wellness Programs Focus on the Results, Not Progress

“In order to have the most impact, the target audience for a wellness program should be individuals with chronic conditions. The impact of an obese individual lowering their BMI [body mass index] by two points is much greater than a healthy-weight individual doing the same,” points out. But, it says, too many wellness programs only touch in with the participants once or twice per year, resulting in a focus on the end result, not the progress someone has made. “Many of the individuals with chronic conditions are struggling with a lifetime of medical challenges or bad habits. In order to help them move forward in the right direction, it takes frequent touches so that they feel that their progress is being recognized.”

Wellness Programs Are Set on Repeat notes that many physical wellness programs are set on a never-ending cycle: January is Weight Loss month, February is Heart Health month, etc. The same focus and the same tools for every group, year in and year out, results in a stale program that doesn’t excite engagement and may not even be relevant to employees. It suggests that a wellness program should be dynamic, responding to the interests and needs of individual employees.

A survey from Welltok found delivering more personalized programming would motivate 82% of employees to participate more in physical wellness programs. More than 80% of respondents believe everyone at their company is offered the same resources, regardless of individual needs and goals.

Wellness Programs Don’t Have a Relationship Factor

Many wellness programs today rely on on-line applications, videos and phone calls, and while these can be excellent support tools, they cannot take the place of a face-to-face health coach, says. “By having the individual meet one-on-one with the same person on a regular basis, they form a relationship with that individual. A level of comfort and trust that cannot be obtained digitally is formed. The individual feels more accountable for their choices and is more likely to stick with the program so that they don’t let their coach down.”