Workplace wellness study makes strides

By Therese Pokorney, Assistant Daytime Editor

To increase gym use and decrease health care spending, employers often implement workplace wellness programs to promote healthier lifestyles. However, a large, randomized control trial conducted by two professors in finance found these programs might not work as advertised.

David Molitor and Julian Reif, co-authors of the Illinois Workplace Wellness Program study, researched the effects these programs had on University employees for over a year. Almost 5,000 employees volunteered to participate in the process. 

“Workplace wellness programs are increasing in popularity and cover over 50 million people,” Molitor said. “There are a lot of existing studies that look at companies where participation in these programs is voluntary. Our study differs fundamentally, since employees were randomly assigned to two groups so we could see any health changes.”

For the study, more than 1,500 employees were placed in the control group that did not receive wellness services. About 3,300 were invited to participate in activities like weight loss classes and smoking cessation.

The eligible group also had the opportunity to receive a biometric health screening and an online health risk assessment, as well as a financial incentive for completing the screenings and activities. Those who successfully completed the program were randomly assigned a reward between $50 and $350.

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The study observed that more than half of those who were offered the option participated in wellness activities. Although the turnout was better than expected, the researchers followed up on the two groups and said their findings were disappointing.

“After a year, we found no differences in their health outcomes or health behaviors, like going to the gym” Molitor said. “Most studies often compare participants and nonparticipants, so we decided to analyze studies in the past and only focus on those who were eligible as an observational study.”

The researchers analyzed the 3,300 eligible employees and compared them with those who participated and those who did not, and yielded very different results. Those who didn’t use the wellness benefits went to the gym 3.8 times per year, and those who did went 7.4 times per year.

However, the differences seem nonexistent when the intervention group is compared with the control group: the employees in the control group went 5.9 times per year and those in the intervention group went 5.8 times.

Reif said wellness programs can claim to save money by reducing health care spending in the short run, but businesses should aim for their workers’’ positive morales as a key benefit.

“Although we didn’t find a significant difference in health behavior, one big effect was employee morale,” he said. “We asked groups whether their employer cares about their health and safety. The eligible people were much more likely to say yes.”

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