Companies have long embraced workplace wellness programmes as a way to improve the health of workers and to reduce overall medical spending, but a new study may make employers to rethink those efforts.

The study, published recently in Journal of the American Association, a medical journal, looked at the experience of 33 000 workers at a retailer over a year and a half.

While workers who enrolled in the wellness programme reported that they learnt to exercise more and watch their weight, the research found no significant differences in outcomes like lower blood pressure or sugar levels and other health measures. It found no significant reduction in the health-care costs of the workers.

“These findings may temper expectations about the financial return on investment that wellness programmes can deliver in the short term,” found the study’s authors, Zirui Song, a Harvard Medical School health policy researcher, and Katherine Baicker, a University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy dean.

Most employers, about 82% of companies with more than 200 workers, offer some sort of wellness programme such as quitting smoking or weight management, according to the latest survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation. 
Companies often encourage participation in these programmes by dangling some sort of financial carrot, ranging from a gift card if you track your steps to a significant discount off what you pay towards your health insurance.

“Wellness is this multibillion-dollar industry where there has been a really weak evidence base of what these programmes do,” she said.
Some programmes have sparked concerns over employees’ privacy and the use of health data by third parties, like vendors selling these workplace plans. Lawsuits have been filed that forced employers to retreat from offering incentives for reaching specific goals.

Nearly all the studies to date had been observational and have largely concluded that the programmes save some money for employers. This study assigned employees to a wellness programme randomly and compared their results with those of employees who were not enrolled in such efforts.

Baicker said employers looking for a quick reduction in their health-care spending will be disappointed.
But there were some encouraging notes among those who adopted healthier behaviour. “We’ve seen that necessary first step,” she said. Those changes could later lead to better overall health and lower medical expenses.

“It is not the final verdict on workplace wellness programmes,” Song warned, calling the research “still a young field”. The authors are now analysing three years of data from the wellness programme to see if there are any longer-term effects.
There has been a shift in emphasis in what companies offer, including addressing broader issues like emotional well-being, said Brian Marcotte, the chief executive of the National Business Group on Health, which represents employers that offer insurance cover to their workers.

More recent programmes provide a variety of techniques aimed at reducing stress or helping employees better manage their finances, tools that are aimed at increasing productivity, he said.

In a departure from previous policies of wellness programme, employers are now less likely to dictate what their workforce should do in favour of offering workers a range of programmes aimed at addressing their individual needs or struggling with debt, Marcotte said.
But wellness has also raised concerns that employers are putting workers under pressure to participate in these programmes and that the private health data being gathered could be shared inappropriately with employers.

This article first appeared in The New York Times.

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