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Experts say wellness programs at the office can be effective if they are long term and more personalized. Getty Images

Workplace wellness programs have been in vogue for a while now.

However, a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) suggests they might not be all they’re cracked up to be, at least in the short term.

In a randomized trial involving nearly 33,000 employees at 160 BJ’s Wholesale Club stores and work sites, researchers found that workers engaged in wellness programs reported an 8 percent increase in regular physical exercise.

The study also found a 13 percent higher rate of workers actively managing their weight after 18 months compared to a control group that wasn’t offered these programs.

Sounds pretty good, right?

But despite these improvements, the researchers didn’t register any improvements in other outcomes, including clinical markers of health such as cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and body mass index score.

Job outcomes such as absenteeism, tenure, performance, and sleep quality also didn’t show improvements.

The researchers also didn’t note any overall savings in health spending during this time.

One of the strengths of the study was its size and design in that it was randomized and had a large control group.

But “wellness programs” can incorporate a wide range of practices and aims.

In this case, the programs constituted eight wellness modules on nutrition, physical activity, and stress reduction — among other topics — administered by registered dietitians.

That’s just one approach among many and not enough to write off wellness programs at large.

“I am not unduly surprised by the results in the study,” Russell Thackeray, PhD, an organizational consultant with more than 20 years of experience working with workplace wellness programs, told Healthline. “There is no explicit aim that the programs were meant to achieve those outcomes and, even if that were the aim, there are a vast range of variables that can affect the results.”

Those include factors such as the quality of the programs themselves, the motivation of participants, adjusting for non-workplace variables, how involved management is in supporting the programs, and the degree to which the learning in these programs is embedded in the workplace.

“The issue is that so many wellness programs have mixed objectives, outcomes, and motivations, and the net effect can be a short term ‘bounce’ in morale rather than any long-term change,” he added. “Often, the effects of change are more observable in an employee’s family circumstances when truly focused on their needs — the work outcomes simply become a ‘knock-on’ effect.”

Ultimately, this study should not be looked at as prescribing a singular truth about workplace wellness but adding to our overall understanding of these programs.

“Well-done studies [like this one] give us a very useful estimate about what happened under the conditions that they study and that data point is very valuable when it’s put with collection of studies that have been done on the same topic,” said Stewart I. Donaldson, PhD, a professor of psychology and community and global health at Claremont Graduate University and the executive director of the Claremont Evaluation Center in California.

Instead, workplaces seeking to implement programs should look at what does work. “The most effective ones are those on-site or near-site and that are multi-year efforts, simply because health change is a slow process impacted by motivation, time and life demands, and mediated by the work culture, leadership, and income and education levels,” Priyanka Upadhyaya, PsyD, a clinical health psychologist specializing in wellness interventions, told Healthline. “Health, happiness, and employment are inextricably tied as a healthy employee doesn’t need to take off, be away from work, or avoid tasks at work. A healthy and happy worker is motivated, energetic, and can go beyond to get the job done.”

Making wellness programs more effective may require deeper integration into workplace culture.

That includes more personalization for workers.

For instance, a recent survey from consumer health software company Welltok found that 84 percent of employees said their workplace wellness programs were “one-size-fits-all programs” and that more than half — 56 percent of employees — had received “irrelevant support.”

Moreover, the same survey found that more than 8 in 10 workers said they would be more likely to participate in wellness programs if they were more personalized.

Americans’ healthcare habits and outcomes are complicated, not in the least because of the cost of healthcare.

That offers the potential of workplace programs to affect real change by offering free services and easier access to care — both preventive, proactive, and mental health — but they would have to go deeper than mere education.

“You can’t just make a sweeping statement that healthcare costs can never be affected by health behavior and wellness,” Donaldson said. “But in a setting like this study, this result doesn’t surprise me. You wouldn’t be able to find savings because I imagine the healthcare situation is driven by things much more powerful than short-term exercise and diet.”