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May 27, 2020
Workplace Wellness Programs and the Coronavirus Pandemic
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David Burda
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Workplace Wellness Programs and the Coronavirus Pandemic

If you think starting a workplace wellness program would be a good way to help your company recover from the COVID-19 outbreak, I’ve got a coronavirus vaccine I’d like to sell you.

A study in JAMA Internal Medicine out this week adds to the growing peer-reviewed literature that says workplace wellness programs do virtually nothing to improve the health status of employees. 

In the new study, which you can download here, researchers from the University of Illinois, University of Chicago, Stanford University, the Veterans Affairs Department and the National Bureau of Economic Research looked at the results of a two-year workplace wellness program that the U. of I. launched at its campus in Urbana-Champaign in 2016. 

Under the program, U. of I. gave employees paid time off or annual cash awards of up to $200 to have annual health risk assessments done, undergo annual biometric screenings and participate in wellness activities like exercise programs, disease management programs and smoking cessation classes.   

Then they compared the health outcomes at 12- and 24-month intervals of the 3,300 employees who participated in the voluntary workplace wellness program with those of 1,534 employees who didn’t. The researchers compared four health outcomes between the two groups of employees:

  • Clinician-collected biometrics (16 measures)
  • Medical claims related to diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol
  • Utilization (physician office visits, emergency room visits and inpatient stays)
  • Self-reported health behaviors

The researchers found no significant effect of the wellness program on biometrics, claims and utilization at either the 12-month or 24-month mark. Employees in the program, though, did say they felt healthier and better about themselves.

“We add to a growing body of evidence from RCTs (randomized clinical trials) that workplace wellness programs are unlikely to significantly improve employee health or reduce medical use in the short term,” the researchers concluded.

If you follow this kind of stuff, your reaction probably is meh. You already know that workplace wellness programs don’t work. 

But, the people who should follow this kind of stuff—like CEOs of corporations or chief human resources officers at big companies—don’t, and they keep expanding their wellness programs in hopes of reducing their employee health benefits costs. 

The latest evidence of this was a survey done by Willis Towers Watson, the big benefits consulting firm based on Arlington, Va. The firm polled 816 employers with nearly 12 million employees and asked them what they’re doing benefits-wise in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Here’s what they said:

  • 60 percent said they are offering work-from-home employees virtual workouts
  • 50 percent said they are offering WFH employees nutrition and weight management guidance
  • 47 percent said they are enhancing healthcare benefits
  • 45 percent said they are expanding employee wellbeing programs

Willis Towers Watson released its survey results on May 7—a little less than three weeks before the new JAMA study came out—and you can download them here

Who knows? Maybe it will take a global pandemic to get workplace wellness programs producing the big health-improving and cost-lowering impact that employers want. I doubt it. It’s a lot easier to whip up a plate of nachos at home than it is in your office snack room. 

Thanks for reading.

Stay home, stay safe, stay alive. And ease up on the cheese.

About the Author

David Burda

David Burda began covering healthcare in 1983 and hasn’t stopped since. Dave writes this monthly column “Burda on Healthcare,” contributes weekly blog posts, manages our weekly newsletter 4sight Friday, and hosts our weekly Roundup podcast. Dave believes that healthcare is a business like any other business, and customers — patients — are king. If you do what’s right for patients, good business results will follow.

Dave’s personnel experiences with the healthcare system both as a patient and family caregiver have shaped his point of view. It’s also been shaped by covering the industry for 40 years as a reporter and editor. He worked at Modern Healthcare for 25 years, the last 11 as editor.

Prior to Modern Healthcare, he did stints at the American Medical Record Association (now AHIMA) and the American Hospital Association. After Modern Healthcare, he wrote a monthly column for Twin Cities Business explaining healthcare trends to a business audience, and he developed and executed content marketing plans for leading healthcare corporations as the editorial director for healthcare strategies at MSP Communications.

When he’s not reading and writing about healthcare, Dave spends his time riding the trails of DuPage County, IL, on his bike, tending his vegetable garden and daydreaming about being a lobster fisherman in Maine. He lives in Wheaton, IL, with his lovely wife of 40 years and his three children, none of whom want to be journalists or lobster fishermen.

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