Workplace Wellness Increases Activity but Not Health Care Costs

With June’s designation as National Employee Wellness Month officially in the rearview mirror, and more employers turning to workplace wellness programs to improve workers’ health and save on health care costs, a new study shows program results to be slightly less than healthy.

The study, published in the April edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association — the first large-scale, randomized clinical trial examining the causal health effects of the employee programs — found that workplace wellness participants exercise more, actively manage their weight and have other healthier behaviors than their peers outside of the programs. However, they don’t have lower body-mass index, blood pressure or cholesterol, according to the analysis.

The study also found the programs did not reduce health care spending or utilization of health care services.

In a recent article in Modern Healthcare, study co-author Dr. Zirui Song, assistant professor of health care policy and medicine at Harvard Medical School, said: “These findings suggest that employers who may be thinking about investing in workplace wellness programs or people who manage public dollars that might be interested in workplace wellness programs perhaps should temper their expectations of such programs to generate a large return on investment in the short run.”

Another study from Song and Dr. Katherine Baicker, dean of the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, found that medical costs were reduced by $3.27 for every $1 spent on wellness programs. Costs associated with absenteeism fell by $2.73 for each dollar spent.

In 2018, 82% of large firms and 53% of small employers across the country offered a wellness program, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey.

With those numbers in mind, Corporate Wellness Magazine compiled a list of low-cost employee wellness program ideas for any workplace:

On-site wellness services: Chair massages, meditation sessions, yoga instruction and acupuncture. Set aside a special area where employees can sign up for weekly sessions at reduced costs.

Free healthy snacks: Employee break areas and meeting rooms should be stocked with plenty of healthy low-fat snacks instead of salty or sugary ones. 

Walk/bike paths: Designate an area of the company property for lunchtime walks. Hand out pedometers to employees so they can track their movement and maybe a selection of bikes for employees to enjoy on their breaks.

Destress zones: Every office needs at least one “safe” area where employees can cry, vent or decompress after a particularly difficult day without the embarrassment of creating a scene in front of peers.

Employee assistance programs: These very low-cost programs give employees the ability to call a caring counselor about any area of their work or personal life to get confidential support when they need it the most.

Flexible work schedules: A zero-cost benefit that gives employees more work-life balance is a huge perk for many workers, especially those who are caring for others or raising kids. 

Corporate health discounts: There are many ways to pass corporate health discounts down to employees for local gyms, YMCAs and health product vendors.

Cooking classes: Local restaurants and universities often have professional chefs willing to conduct a cooking class for your employees. 

Wellness technology: There are many free and low-cost wellness apps and web tools for managing weight, blood pressure, diabetes, stress, smoking cessation and more, so be sure to provide access to these to your employees.

Food co-op: Partner with farmers and produce groups to bring in healthy fruits and veggies as part of a companywide food co-op program at least once a month. Give employees the chance to buy these foods at a greatly reduced group rate. 



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