What Benefits Can a Workplace Wellness Program Provide Employees?

May 29, 2020

A comprehensive workplace wellness program was shown to increase the proportion of employees with a designated primary care physician and improve employee beliefs on their own health. However, no significant effects were observed on physical health outcomes, rates of medical diagnoses, or health care service use, according to study findings published this week.

The availability of workplace wellness programs has grown starkly in recent years, with 84% of large US firms having offered the health benefit service in 2019. Although these programs aim to improve employee health and reduce medical costs, researchers of a study published this week in JAMA Internal Medicine noted that evidence of causal efficacy is limited. Moreover, prior studies have examined their effect on factors such as medical spending and employee productivity, which may be subject to selection bias, as opposed to employees’ beliefs on their own health.

“Measuring these beliefs sheds light on employees’ perceptions about the effectiveness of participating in wellness programs. These beliefs may also shape how much value and effort individuals place on health behaviors, a channel emphasized by social cognitive theory,” said the study authors.

Researchers conducted a randomized clinical trial of 4834 employees (2770 women; mean [SD] age, 43.9 [11.3] years) from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, examining the effect of a comprehensive workplace wellness program on employee health, health beliefs, and medical use after 12 and 24 months. The 2-year wellness program provided financial incentives and paid time off for annual on-site biometric screenings, annual health risk assessments, and ongoing wellness activities such as physical activity and smoking cessation.

Participants were split into 2 groups, the treatment group (n = 3300) who received the incentives and the control group who were not involved in the program (n = 1534). Measurements taken included clinician-collected biometrics, administrative claims related to medical diagnoses and medical use, and self-reported health behaviors and health beliefs. Data were derived from August 9, 2016, to April 26, 2018, and the statistical analysis occurred on April 9, 2020.

Although there was no effect on biometrics, medical diagnoses, or medical use at 12 and 24 months, employees in the treatment group had a significantly higher rate of having a primary care physician after 24 months compared with the control group (1106 of 1200 [92.2%] vs 477 of 554 [86.1%]; adjusted P = .002).

Additionally, those in the treatment group also exhibited a significantly improved set of employee health beliefs, on average; participant beliefs about their chance of having a body mass index greater than 30, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and impaired glucose level jointly decreased by 0.07 SDs (95% CI, −0.12 to −0.01 SDs; P = .02). There were no significant differences in individual belief measures.

Researchers highlighted that workplace wellness programs may ultimately influence long-term effects on employee health. “However, we add to a growing body of evidence from randomized controlled trials that workplace wellness programs are unlikely to significantly improve employee health or reduce medical use in the short term,” concluded the study authors.

Reference

Reif J, Chan D, Jones D, et al. Effects of a workplace wellness program on employee health, health beliefs, and medical use. JAMA Intern Med. Published online May 26, 2020. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2020.1321