Workplace Wellness Programs

In an effort to reduce chronic disease among Americans, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is launching a program to promote health in the workplace.

The agency announced Monday that it will be partnering with 104 businesses, non-profit groups, and government organizations in its inaugural National Healthy Worksite Program under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare. Viridian Health will administer the $8 million program.

The communities included in the program were selected because of their high rates of chronic disease.The National Healthy Worksite Program will focus specifically on nutrition, exercise, and smoking cessation. 

The program corresponds with new guidelines under the ACA that allow employers to charge up to 30 percent more to cover the cost of healthcare plans for employees with unhealthy lifestyles, but are obligated to make reasonable concessions to help people improve their health through employee health programs and other initiatives.

Wellness programs have become common, with up to 92 percent of employers with more than 200 employees offering wellness programs as of 2009, according to an analysis from the RAND Corporation.

There’s just one problem: according to the largest review of existing scientific data to date, which the government paid for, workplace wellness programs aren’t very effective.

How Effective Are Wellness Programs?

Last year, the RAND Corporation, a non-profit think tank, completed an analysis of existing programs sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

They found that the most targeted employee behaviors were exercising, smoking, and losing weight—the same issues addressed by the new CDC program—but that less than 20 percent of eligible employees participated in the programs.

Based on the available data, RAND researchers said that the wellness industry has outpaced its evidence base and that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach that seems to work for every company.

The researchers acknowledged that their study only addressed a “tiny percentage” of available programs, but their final recommendations stressed that more information is “sorely needed” about what works best for optimal health outcomes. 

“At this time, it is difficult to definitively assess the impact of workplace wellness on health outcomes and cost,” the researchers wrote in their conclusion. “While employer sponsors are mostly satisfied with the results, more than half stated in a recent survey that they did not know their program's return on investment.”

Since the CDC is funding its new program with tax dollars, it’s important to determine whether programs like it are worth the financial investment.

The RAND researchers said the biggest question that remains is what type of motivation works best for employees. 

“The use of incentives to promote employee engagement, while increasingly popular, remains poorly understood, and it is not clear how the type (e.g., cash or noncash), direction (reward versus penalty), and strength of incentives are related to employee engagement and outcomes,” the researchers wrote.

However, the goals of wellness programs are laudable and, with time, they may provide necessary educational and motivational resources for people looking to improve their health and the health of their families.

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