How are your employee wellness programs doing? Are employees utilizing them? Are you getting a good return on your investments?
If you answered: Not great, no and no, you’re not alone.
Many employers have implemented employee wellness programs with the goal to reduce the never-ending costs of health care for their employees. But to be truthful, there’s not much evidence out there that these programs are effective.
That’s a big problem, since it’s now estimated to be a $50 billion a year industry. Companies want to lower healthcare costs and making employees healthier will do that. So companies implement them and then expand them down the road. But according to the studies out there, these programs aren’t working.
And the other big development, which started about 10 years ago, but has especially become huge since the pandemic hit, is employees are looking for more from their employers. They want a job that isn’t just paying the bills, but that’s giving them meaning. And being that they are spending so much time at work they want a structure in the workplace that helps them maintain other goals in life. And staying health is one of those things that many employees find difficult to do, explained Management Professor Iwan Barankay in a Wharton podcast.
Why aren’t wellness programs effective?
Over the past 10 years there have been a lot of behavioral and psychology studies that have offered insight on how people behave and how they make decisions.
“Health is one of those interesting topics where if you do something healthy today to keep your heart health on track and avoid heart attacks down the road, you don’t really notice anything today,” said Barankay. “If your cholesterol level was to drop significantly you wouldn’t notice this. But it has a big impact on your future risk for heart disease. But this is abstract, diffuse and off in the future.”
So, while it seems like a great idea – you offer employees vouchers to go to the gym – the only people that actually benefit from it are those who already do it.
No difference in outcomes
In several clinical trials where people were randomized into groups who had wellness programs and those who didn’t. When they were compared, there was no significant difference in their health outcomes or cost savings. “So, while the idea really sounds like it should work, the data doesn’t support this,” Barankay said.
What the data shows is that the people who participate in these programs are already going to their doctors for check-ups and going to the gym. So, they’re already doing these healthy behaviors, now you’re just rewarding them for doing them.
“On the other hand, the people who aren’t engaged with their health, when we talked to them as part of our research, they see these incentives and they want to act on them, but their lives are so complicated they don’t know how,” explained Barankay. “When you’re poor in America or have comorbidities, this is such a big cognitive burden that the idea of adding to that is so difficult. So, the idea that these small vouchers would help these people is just missing the point completely.”
What else can you do?
First off, skip the free gym memberships, yoga classes and weight loss programs. Instead, the professors suggest offering support tailored to your most vulnerable employees’ needs.
What does that mean?
Find out who doesn’t have a primary care physician and help them find one. For people who don’t drive or have cars, help them find transportation to routine appointments. Doing things like this have more of an impact on employees’ health and result in improved health outcomes.
“What we need to do is listen to our employees. We have to talk to them to understand what their barriers are that are preventing them from engaging,” said Barankay. “It may look trivial for most of us, but for people who have a complicated life, just the thought of finding parking near the pharmacy to pick up drugs or knowing what to wear and how to sign up for classes at the gym are things that they would benefit from having support with. They’re just really burdened by their lives and comorbidities, so they struggle to build this into their routines.”
Find out what employees want
Do surveys and interviews with your employees so you understand what their barriers are. It may look trivial to you, but for those who struggle, it’s huge.
These employees can benefit from having support. So just reaching out to them and offering them very personable services where they can get answers to their question can be the difference to starting a healthier routine or not.
Reaching out and listening is the key to helping them get engaged with their health.
Finally, the most effective thing Benefits pros can help them do is gain access to a primary care provider and go to routine appts. “That sounds like a simple thing to do, but many don’t have one,” said Barankay. “And I think that is the starting point for a healthier life.”