Wellness Programs May Not Deliver Cost Savings in the Short Term

A trial among a large group of employees found a couple of positive self-reported outcomes by participants after 18 months of using a wellness program, but measures of health improvements and employer cost savings were not significant.

Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that although limited by incomplete data on some outcomes, its findings may temper expectations about the financial return on investment that wellness programs can deliver in the short term.

Researchers from the University of Chicago and Harvard implemented a clustered randomized trial at 160 worksites from January 2015 through June 2016. Administrative claims and employment data were gathered continuously through June 30, 2016; data from surveys and biometrics were collected from July 1, 2016, through August 31, 2016.

There were 20 randomly selected treatment worksites (4,037 employees) and 140 randomly selected control worksites (28,937 employees, including 20 primary control worksites [4,106 employees]). Control worksites received no wellness programming. The program comprised eight modules focused on nutrition, physical activity, stress reduction, and related topics implemented by registered dietitians at the treatment worksites.

After 18 months, the rates for two self-reported outcomes were higher in the intervention group than in the control group for engaging in regular exercise and for actively managing weight.

“Among employees of a large U.S. warehouse retail company, a workplace wellness program resulted in significantly greater rates of some positive self-reported health behaviors among those exposed compared with employees who were not exposed, but there were no significant differences in clinical measures of health, health care spending and utilization, and employment outcomes after 18 months,” the researchers concluded.

The study conceded that 18 months may not be long enough to effectively measure the return on investment of wellness programs. The researchers plan to publish three-year results in the future.