Why Corporate Wellness Programs Don’t Work

$8 billion. That’s how much is spent on corporate wellness programs each year in the United States. Sadly, it seems that enormous amount of money doesn’t actually improve employee wellness. And it doesn’t save companies money either.

Most of the time, when businesses add an extra layer of expense, they do so in order to grow their revenue or reduce costs.

Theoretically, improving the health of employees would lower healthcare costs, reducing expenses, and improve productivity, improving revenue growth. Many companies have spent a lot of money on that theory, but the research shows that idea is nothing more than theoretical.

According to the research, corporate wellness programs:

  • don’t reduce healthcare costs
  • don’t reduce medication costs
  • don’t improve measurable markers of individual health
  • do cost a lot of money

Even though many executives know this already, they feel like having an employee wellness offering is necessary for their brand. Since other companies offer it, they do it as well. It’s kind of like “keeping up with the Joneses,” corporate-style.

Here’s why corporate wellness programs don’t work, and some thoughts to consider about what might.

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Recent Study: Effect of a Workplace Wellness Program on Employee Health and Economic Outcomes

Zirui Song and Katherine Baicker published the results of a recent clinical study in the Journal of The American Medical Association. It’s titled Effect of a Workplace Wellness Program on Employee Health and Economic Outcomes.

The full paper and related study details is 123 pages. Not as long as the Meueller report on President Trump, but similar in its findings. Where the Meueller report found no evidence of collusion with Russia, Song and Baicker found no evidence of health benefits from an employee wellness program.

Corporate Wellness Clinical Trial

In the study, Wellness Workdays provided corporate wellness services to a portion of BJ’s Wholesale Club employees who were insured by Cigna. In all, just over 4000 employees were part of the “treatment” group, and another 4000 at other locations served as the control group.

The offerings were pretty standard in the corporate wellness space:

  • Personal health assessments
  • In-person screenings
  • Educational modules on nutrition, weight loss, cardiovascular health, stress management, and exercise, usually led by a registered dietitian.

Employees were incentivized with $25-$50 gift cards for completion of various modules.

In all, 35% of the employees participated in at least one educational module. Of those who completed one module, 61% completed three or more.

I’m sure Wellness Workdays, BJs and Cigna all hoped for a positive outcome from the study. It would have made for great marketing. That’s not how things worked out, though.

Disappointing Results

In the end, those who participated in the corporate wellness program faired no better in

  • measurable health outcomes
  • healthcare spending
  • medication costs

Most fascinating to me, though, was that participants’ perception was that their health improved, even though it didn’t.

United Healthcare came to similar conclusions in a 2017 survey. They found that 60% of employees who had access to a corporate wellness program believed the program had a positive impact on their health, even though the programs don’t have much of an impact on health.

When it comes to making healthier choices, our brains have a funny way of believing we’re doing better than we actually are.

Of course, some corporate wellness companies will look at the results of the study and say, “Wellness Workdays just don’t know how to do it right. We have a better offering.” They might think they have a better approach to nutrition or exercise.

Or, they’ll reason that “The problem isn’t the programs; it’s the participation. We just need more people to show up for seminars and screenings.”

The way I see it, you either need to find employees who love seminars, nutrition coaching, and screenings (in which case, they’re probably healthier anyway), or you need to rethink what it requires to improve employee health.

The following are four glaring reasons most corporate wellness programs fall short, and some thoughts on how to deal with them.

Why Don’t Corporate Wellness Programs Work?

This is something I’d hope insurance companies, businesses, and corporate wellness companies consider before burning through another $8 billion.

The idea of offering free seminars, nutrition and wellness coaching, and even a gym membership sounds good. It gives companies something to boast about, but research shows they don’t actually help employees get healthier. In fact, hiring a corporate wellness company to help your employees get healthier might just be an unnecessary expense. And a big one at that.

1. Health and Fitness Isn’t A Foundation Of Company Culture

Employees aren’t naive. When a company’s culture has nothing to do with health, and all-of-a-sudden the management staff starts promoting nutrition seminars and health screenings, employees roll their eyes.

“Here’s another shiny penny from the executives,” they think. “I wonder what’s in it for them?”

Every leadership book out there will speak to the idea that culture develops from the influence of a company’s leaders.

Depending on the size of a company, it could take years for everyone to get behind the idea that health and fitness is here to stay. If you try to change things too fast, you’ll end up freaking people out or have them think of your initiaitive as a joke.

It would be like a drug dealing parent coming home one night and proclaiming they they’d gotten saved by the Lord that day, and took a job at the church. Their kids would be more suspicious than supportive.

Saying health is important to the organization, and seeing it exemplified by the leaders are two totally different things.

Being the first to sign up for a seminar isn’t going to set the right example. Seeing executives exercise, eat healthy food, and making changes to the environment for employees is what matters.

A much more powerful example would be an overweight executive losing weight. Leaders biking into work, or going for walks over lunch. Overhauling the vending machines and kitchens. And getting rid of all junk food on the campus.

Here’s a great example of setting the standard, even before corporate wellness was a “thing.”

The First Companies With Corporate Wellness

The Pullman railcar company set up an athletic association for its employees in 1879. In the 1880s, the president of National Cash Register met before work to go horseback riding with employees. Later, NCR added a gym, twice-daily exercise breaks, and developed a 325-acre recreational park just for employees.

Hershey Foods also built a rec. complex. Texas Instruments, Rockwell, and Xerox added employee fitness programs in the mid-20th century.

How does that measure up with the offerings at companies you know today?

When the president of National Cash Register decided to ride horses with his employees, and institute a twice-daily exercise breaks, it wasn’t because corporate wellness was the popular thing to do. It’s because he believed it to be important.

It’s a lot easier for employees to adopt something when they see how much their president values it.

A “culture of health” starts at the top, with those who have the most skin in the game with the company.

It’s not the responsibility of the marketing department or human resources to develop a culture of health. It’s the role of the executive or leadership team.

Here’s the interesting thing…health isn’t important to everyone. Making it a priority in a company might make some people feel uncomfortable. They might even quit. But then, if they quit because they’re that opposed to making health a priority, would you want them on the team?

Though you’ll lose people, you’ll lead many others toward health and fitness, which will reinforce the culture.

What Are Signs Of A Culture Of Health And Fitness?

There are numerous changes a company can make in the design of workspaces, kitchens, and campuses that will probably cost a lot less than hiring an outside corporate wellness company. These are just a handful of ideas, which would all be easily implemented.

Replace sitting desks with high-top, standing, or adjustable desks. There’s nothing less healthy in a corporate setup than making employees sit all day long. They should at least have the option to stand for part of the day and do their work.

Get rid of vending machine junk food. Swap candy bars and cookies for Quest bars, Kind bars and fruit. Get rid of regular soda and replace it with Zevia, Steaz, or other low/no-calorie beverages.

Block the ability to schedule meetings before 9 am or after 3 pm (assuming an 8am-5pm workday). Making employees sit in a meeting for their first hour of the day, or during the last two hours of the day is crazy. They need time to get their urgent stuff handled to start the day, and wrap stuff up at the end so they don’t bring it home with them. When people have to work from home, they either sacrifice family or recreational time (both important for mental health), or they sacrifice sleep (critical for physical health).

Start meetings at five minutes after the hour and end them at ten minutes to the hour. Rarely is there a meeting that needs a full 60 minutes. When you use an hour for a meeting, you inevitably make your attendees late for the next one, adding to mental stress and making them less efficient, since they don’t have time to check in on their own stuff.

Put in a fitness center and place it near the entrance. If fitness is important, make your fitness center prominent so employees see it every time they show up for work, and every time they leave. Even better, make sure the executive staff and managers use it so employees see them living out the culture themselves.

When you serve food, make sure it exemplifies your culture of health and fitness. I’m amazed by how often a health or fitness focused company offers food that’s far from healthy. Will it cost more to offer something nutritious, high in protein, and low in sugar? Sure. But if it’s part of the culture, it’s part of the culture all of the time.

When you do decide to offer seminars and fitness events, make them fun and show off the employees who’ve been owning the culture for their own lives. Celebrate the people who are adopting the culture. Make events educational as well as entertaining. And when possible, help people see the progress they’ve made from one to the next. For example, if you’re going to do a 5K, be sure to track people’s times and encourage them to improve from one to the next.

When people interview for a job, let them know that this is part of the culture. Some people simply don’t want to take personal responsibility for their health. They have no interest in fitness. If, during an interview, some people aren’t turned off by the culture, then you probably don’t really have a culture of health and fitness.

Work on the culture at the top before instituting new programs for the rest of the company. Let them see what the leaders are doing and be inspired, rather than having them feel like they’re being told to add something else to their plates.

2. Incentives Don’t Inspire Action

Incentives don’t work. If they did, more than 30% of the employees in the study I mentioned earlier would have participated.

Incentives go against a psychological principle called loss aversion:

Loss aversion: People work harder to avoid losing something than they do to gain something of equal value.

Let’s say you agree to work for a company for $5000 per month, and they tell you they’re going to pay you $5025 as long as you get your corporate wellness stuff done each month. For your benefit, they’ll even send you two reminders each month to get it done.

When you forget to go to the screening or skip out on the seminar, and they take away the $25, you’ll probably lose your shit.

But, if instead, the company paid you the $5000 like you agreed to all along, and then they said they’d give you a $25 bonus for doing your corporate wellness stuff, you’d probably come up with a dozen reasons to skip the seminar or screening.

Since you never had the $25, it isn’t as important as if you’d been given an extra $25 and had it taken away.

In fact, that’s one of the main problems with offering employees free gym memberships, free seminars, or access to other “free” stuff. They don’t value what they don’t pay for, either with their own money, or at least their own effort.

3. Wellness is Weak

For the most part, when discussing “corporate wellness,” you’re referring to programs aimed at mature adults, not teenagers working at a fast food restaurant.

Yet, when it comes to discussing health with adults, most people worry more about protecting someone’s feelings than they do to shoot them straight with their state of health.

Two-thirds of the population is overweight or obese. The prevalence of pre-diabetes and diabetes closely matches that of overweight and obesity as well. So, two out of three people should leave a health assessment knowing they need to get their stuff together. Instead, they leave feeling like they’re not “that” bad.

You can’t coddle someone to health. It usually requires a degree of candor.

In a research paper, or on the CDC website, it’s okay to say that obesity-related costs, most of which are preventable, cost about $149 billion in 2008 dollars, just in the United States. The cost of missed workdays alone is $3.4-6.4 billion.

But imagine if a manager said to an employee, “Look, your choices are slowly killing you, and costing us a lot of money. I need you to do something about it now.”

A conversation like that would make news headlines faster than a Tweet from President Trump, and paint the company as a villain and the employee as a victim.

So, managers don’t even say anything. It’s left to a health coach or dietitian, who often doesn’t work for the company or have any skin in the game, to coddle the individual, and try to softly nudge them in the right direction.

4. Lack of Employee Accountability

Some people have the opinion that their health is their personal choice, and the company they work for should have no say over the choices they make about their health. They sound like a teenager who wants the benefits of living at home but doesn’t want to follow the rules of the parents that provide the home for him or her.

Others say that it’s the company’s role to offer everything imaginable to support someone’s physical and mental health, like the way kids are coddled on some college campuses.

Setting aside the emotional side of this, let me just lay out reality.

A business is in place to produce a profit. That’s the case for one or two-person small businesses just as much as it is for $billion brands.

If a business doesn’t grow and isn’t profitable, it closes down and everyone loses their jobs.

So, looking at employee health from that lens, it is the

  • employee’s responsibility to maintain the best physical and mental health he or she is capable of, in order to add the most value to the company that employees him or her.
  • corporation’s responsibility to hold employees accountable to maintaining their health
  • corporation’s responsibility to foster the right culture, to create a working environment that allows people to make healthier decisions easy, and to offer services to support the actions they want their employees to take, in order to maintain their physical and mental health.

Personal health is one’s personal responsibility.

I get the idea that everyone wants their independence and to be free from the judgement of others. That’s a popular idea today, and it’s fine for those who own their own businesses.

But the reality is, if an individual agrees to work for a company, their responsibility is to bring their best self to work each day to add value to the company. If they’re not adding more value to the company than what it costs to have the employee on board, then it doesn’t make sense to keep that employee hired.

What’s The Right Answer For Improving Workplace Wellness?

Clearly, nobody has figured out a perfect solution yet. However, the following are some things to consider if this is an area you can influence in your organization:

  1. Establish or redevelop a culture of health and fitness
  2. Set the standard from the top down
  3. Remain unwavering in the commitment to health and fitness, no matter what else becomes a “priority” for the organization
  4. Change the environment to make it easy for employees to make healthier habits
  5. Make success stories of each employee who changes their lives by adopting the culture.


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