According to the CDC Foundation, worker injuries and illnesses cost employers $225.8 billion per year. With such a huge price tag, employers have an incentive to motivate their workers to stay healthy. One tool is the employee wellness plan.
Given ballooning healthcare costs for both businesses and workers, it makes perfect sense that these plans would save everyone money and reduce the strain on our over-burdened healthcare system.
But are the plans working?
Employee wellness plans offer workers financial incentives to perform any number of tasks associated with greater health and fitness. These include quitting smoking, counting steps, and getting routine screenings for common health problems (such as high cholesterol and diabetes).
These plans are big business, too. Employers have enrolled over 50 million U.S. workers in them.
But while it makes plenty of common sense that these incentive plans would lead to a healthier workplace and lower medical costs, studies paint a more complicated picture.
The Illinois Workplace Wellness Study
To find out how effective these plans are, researchers studied a wellness program offered at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The results? After one year, the program had made no impact on healthcare costs. Nor did it change workers’ “measured health behaviors.” Specifically, the study found that participants were no more likely to go to the gym or to participate in running events than the control group.
The researchers only found one positive effect of the wellness program: workers who signed up for it were more likely to be screened for health issues.
The Illinois study isn’t the only one that failed to find sweeping benefits to these programs. Soeren Mattke, a senior scientist at the nonprofit RAND Corporation, also found no evidence that employee wellness programs generate savings that outweigh the cost of the programs. “What our data suggest is clearly no,” Mattke said.
But despite studies showing little benefit to these programs, they’re still popular with employers. Most employers said their wellness programs reduced health costs, absenteeism, and health-related productivity losses. But when asked to provide actual savings estimates, only 2% could do so.
Employers aren’t the only ones who like these plans despite a lack of hard evidence showing their effectiveness. Workers see employee wellness programs as a sign that their employers put a “high priority” on workers’ health.
Steps For Better Health
What can companies do to promote a culture of wellness that benefits their employees?
1) Offer healthy snacks. Employees report higher on-the-job happiness when free food is offered. But companies need to be mindful of the type of food they have on offer. As one study showed, the more fruits and vegetables people consumed, the happier, more engaged, and creative they tended to be.
2) Cultivate a sleep-friendly work culture. Lack of sleep costs the U.S. economy as much as $1 billion a year. That’s why employers should make it as easy as possible for their workers to get enough sleep. This includes making sure everyone leaves on-time at the end of a shift, limiting stand-by and on-call duties, increasing the length of breaks between shifts, and matching shift times to the availability of public transport.
3) Be the change you want to see. Employees are more likely to follow health and wellness cues if the same people promoting them are the same people modeling them. Managers and team leaders should be the first ones to quit smoking or promote healthy eating by bringing lunch instead of eating out daily.