Workplace wellness schemes don't improve productivity or cut absences, trial finds

First trial of wellness schemes shows employers should 'temper expectations of realising large returns on investment in the short term'

Alex Matthews-King
Health Correspondent
Tuesday 16 April 2019 19:04 BST
High pressure working environments have cut into time to eat well and unwind, leading to boom in workplace wellness
High pressure working environments have cut into time to eat well and unwind, leading to boom in workplace wellness

Workplace wellness programmes which aim to help employees stay fit, healthy, and - crucially - productive, do not reduce sick days, staff turnover or improve job performance, a major trial has found.

For the first time researchers, led by Harvard Medical School, have conducted a comprehensive trial to test the effects of diet advice, fitness coaching and mental health schemes offered by many businesses

While it found that employers with a wellness programme had more employees taking part in regular exercise and actively managing their weight, evidence of benefits in the areas which matter most to employers, and their profit margins, was scarce.

“Our findings show that health behaviours can respond to a workplace wellness program, but they also temper expectations of realising large returns on investment in the short term,” said Dr Zirui Song, lead author of the study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Wellness schemes have boomed in recent years, stimulated in part by tech companies like Facebook which see gym memberships, catering and entertainment perks as a way of retaining top talent.

Increasing awareness of long hours and high pressure jobs driving employee burnout, and cutting into time for recreation, exercise and family life have seen other employers follow suit.

In the US, where 80 per cent of large organisations and around half of midsize employers offer such schemes, health initiatives are also seen as a way to cut cost of long term illness borne by employer funded health insurance.

To test if wellness schemes were having a positive effect in the workplace, the Harvard team used data from 160 different employers and around 33,000 employees.

They picked 20 sites at random, with 4,037 employees in all, to act as a test group where wellness programmes were in place.

These employees were given eight learning modules on eating well, getting active and stress reduction and were supported by dieticians and an employee wellness provider over 18 months.

Apart from the increased exercise and weight loss, which are key measures for avoiding long-term health conditions like diabetes and heart disease, the study found no significant effects in 80 different areas.

Employees did not report better overall sleep quality, food choices or health, measures of blood pressure and other factors in regular health checks did not improve, nor did employer’s prescription costs and medical bills.

While these schemes may in future help motivate healthy behaviour, Dr Song said: “For now, however, we should remain cautious about our expectations from such interventions.”

Dr Jean Marie Abraham of the University of Minnesota, who was not involved in the Harvard study said there was increasing evidence of “limited or no effects” from these sorts of initiatives which should cause operators and employers to think about their offering.

“Investments in more targeted approaches that focus on those individuals with elevated risks for or already having poor health status or health behaviours may yield larger health and economic benefits,” she argued in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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