Workplace wellness programmes have become a hot topic over the last few years with everyone from Richard Branson to Ariana Huffington preaching their benefits and advocating their implementation.
But how much are these programmes actually benefiting employees and do they really work?
Well, according to a new study they might not be as effective as originally thought.
The Illinois Workplace Wellness Study aimed to determine the causal impact of a wellness programme on health and employment outcomes.
For the study, 3,300 employees of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign were given a year of access to iThrive, a workplace wellness programme similar to what many companies offer employees. A control group of 1,534 didn’t get access to it at all.
The researchers wanted to answer three questions: Do these programmes have any effects on health outcomes, medical spending and other measures including productivity? Can money spur more people to participate? And finally, who’s most likely to participate?
Their study found that wellness programmes don’t change employees’ behavior.
David Molitor, co-author of the study stated that ”Across 39 different outcomes that we looked at, we found zeroes — and fairly precise zeroes — on almost all outcomes,” including health spending.
There were, however, two exceptions. Workers who joined workplace programmes were more likely to be screened for health issues and to say they thought their employer put a high priority on employee health.
Which begs the question, why have we all been blindly advocating wellness programmes in the workplace? If our Wednesday morning pilates or Tuesday evening run club makes no difference then why are we bothering?
Well, the answer lies in previous research. Many past studies were ”observational” and simply measured the difference between employees who signed up for the wellness programme and those who didn’t. In reality, workers who sign up for these programmes are those who already lead healthy and active lives.
Molitor and his colleagues performed a randomised study which can explain their more accurate results.
However, the study’s authors do acknowledge that it may take longer for a wellness programme to show results. They plan to continue their study for four more years.
“We don’t have a particular stance on whether these programmes work or don’t work”, Molitor said. “We’re also open-minded regarding the possibility for effects to emerge in the long run when they don’t in the short run.”