new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that employee wellness programmes “did not significantly save employees money or make them healthier.”

The research wanted to take a look at workplace wellness programs, which cover over 50 million workers and are intended to reduce medical spending, increase productivity, and improve well-being when the researchers felt that there was limited evidence exists to support these claims.

The exact words?  “We do not find significant causal effects of treatment on total medical expenditures, health behaviours, employee productivity, or self-reported health status in the first year”

The study

The study was comprised of the launch of a comprehensive workplace wellness program that included an on-site biometric health screening, an online health risk assessment, and a wide variety of wellness activities (e.g., smoking cessation, stress management, and recreational classes). The researchers invited 12,459 benefits-eligible university employees to participate in the workplace wellness program. Those who successfully completed the entire program earned rewards ranging from $50 to $350, with the amounts randomly assigned and communicated at the start of the program. The remaining subjects were assigned to a control group, which was not permitted to participate. The analysis combines individual-level data from online surveys, university employment records, health insurance claims, campus gym visit records, and administrative records.


The results

After a year, the researchers found that there was no significant difference in health costs, health behaviours, employee productivity, or extra trips to the gym between the two groups.

The study also id not detect statistically significant effects on any of the three outcomes that are administratively measured: annual salary, the probability of job termination after 12 months of the wellness intervention, and sick leave taken. Turning to variables measured during the one-year follow-up survey, they found no statistically significant effects on most self-reported employment and productivity measures, including being happier at work than last year or feeling very productive at work

Researchers did find that wellness programs’ financial incentives made an impact on getting employees to participate in health screenings — but only up to a point. Paying employees to participate in health screenings worked better than offering zero dollars, but the researchers found only a 4% difference in participation between paying employees $100 versus $200, suggesting that one hundred dollars may be enough to get employees to show up for a health screening.

According to the researchers, there are a few key reasons.   Prior studies have raised concerns that the benefits of wellness programs accrue primarily to higher-income employees with lower health risks (Horwitz, Kelly and DiNardo, 2013). These new results are broadly consistent with these concerns: participating employees are less likely to have very high medical spending, less likely to be in the bottom quartile of income, and more likely to engage in healthy activities such as running or visiting the gym.

Wellness works when it feels real

So, why are wellbeing programmes still implemented an still showing results when the data stacks up to inconclusive or even negative responses? Despite the researchers finding no significant effects of wellness programs on the outcomes – there was a key exception they note employee beliefs that the employer places a priority on worker health and safety.

This mimics the findings of ‘Perceived organizational support – L. Rhoades and R. Eisenberger (2002)’ that shows in a review of over 70 scientific studies:

“Employees that feel valued are more committed to the organisation, have improved job satisfaction and mood and decreased withdrawal (including tardiness, uncertified sick leave and turnover) from work. They have less psychological strain, which reduces their symptoms of burnout, anxiety and depression. Employees feel valued when there is fairness in decisions, support from supervisors and good job conditions. The review reported that employees often understand that job conditions and rewards, including pay and promotions, can be outside their employer’s control, however. When the organisation makes voluntary decisions to give their employees practical and moral support, keep them informed and treat them with respect, employees appreciate it.”

In short – benefits come from the perceived value of a wellbeing programme.

Long-term study is needed

Many prior studies have looked and found significant reductions in health expenditures and absenteeism. (See, for example, Baicker, Cutler and Song, 2010.) Whilst this study might make well-being seem gloomy, the researchers themselves recognise they need to take a longer view.

“Although we fail to find effects of our workplace wellness program on the majority of the outcomes in our analysis, we emphasize that we have only examined outcomes in the first year following randomization. It is possible that meaningful effects may emerge in later years. We will continue to collect data so that we can estimate long-run effects in future research.”

“Our main hope is that this study provides credible evidence on the impacts of these programs in a space where credible evidence is lacking for how big of an issue workplace wellness is,” the study’s co-author David Molitor said.