How should we measure success for wellness programs?

Employers wrestle with calculating ROI for the long term

A recent New York Times article, Employee Wellness Programs Yield Little Benefit, Study Shows, addresses a hotly debated topic in our industry: Do employee wellness programs work?

The article references a randomized study1 that looks at the impact of participants and non-participants in these programs. Researchers concluded:

Employees exposed to a workplace wellness program reported significantly greater rates of some positive health behaviors compared with those who were not exposed, but there were no significant effects on clinical measures of health, health care spending and utilization, or employment outcomes after 18 months.

For example, employees who participated in wellness programs at work were more likely to report engaging in regular exercise (8.3 percent higher than non-participants) and actively managing their weight (13.6 percent higher). But researchers did not find significant differences in any other areas, as noted above.

Getting employees (or members, patients or consumers) to participate in their own care and change their behavior is one of the most difficult challenges in healthcare. There is no silver bullet and, unfortunately, there is no app for that.

Wellness programs are a long-term investment, and it’s difficult to measure success within an 18-month timeframe. The New York Times article indicates that researchers are currently analyzing three years of data. It will be interesting to see what that analysis shows.

A long-term view of wellness challenges all of us to think more broadly, beyond physical health to financial and mental health, too. It’s time to evolve how we measure impact. A multistage approach to evaluate an employee wellness program can help organizations gain a more complete picture of program implementation processes and subsequent health and business outcomes.2

Employers want to find ways to help employees engage in their own health, and they are presented with many options for wellness programs ideas and apps that aim to fix this issue. But solutions must be more holistic; employers must have clear goals and an organizational culture that fosters success.3 Data and insights can help them assess if their current investments are achieving the desired results.

Help employers empower their employees toward better health

  1. Song Z, Baicker K. Effect of a Workplace Wellness Program on Employee Health and Economic Outcomes: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA. 2019;321(15):1491–1501. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.3307
  2. Goetzel RZ, Berko J, McCleary K, Roemer EC, Stathakos K, Flynn PR, Moscola J, Nevola G. Population health management. 2019.
  3. Goetzel RZ, Henke RM, Tabrizi M, Pelletier KR, Loeppke R, Ballard DW, Grossmeier J, Anderson DR, Yach D, Kelly RK, McCalister T, Serxner S, Selecky C, Shallenberger LG, Fries JF, Baase C, Isaac F, Crighton KA, Wald P, Exum E, Shurney D, Metz RD. Journal of occupational and environmental medicine. 2014;56(9):927-934.