Wellbeing interventions have minimal effect on long-term health and cost

Wellness programmes do little to improve overall health or reduce costs, but could help employees become more active or lose weight, research has suggested.

A study involving 32,974 employees at a large US warehouse retail company found that those who participated in programmes around nutrition, physical activity, stress reduction and a number of other wellness topics were more likely to self-report healthier behaviours and outcomes, such as improved body mass index, blood pressure or cholesterol, after 18 months.

However, there was no significant difference in clinical health measures, healthcare spending or employment outcomes for those at the sites that offered such programmes.

The Harvard Medical School-led research involved introducing wellbeing interventions at 20 of the company’s 160 locations. At the remaining 140 sites where wellness workshops were not introduced, there was no significant difference in the self-reported health of workers – indicating that the programmes had some effect on workers’ health.

There was an 8.3 percentage point difference in the number of employees who exercised regularly at the sites that offered the programme and those that didn’t. There was also a 13.6 percentage point difference in the number of employees that actively managed their weight.

However, there was no significant effect on 27 self-reported health measures such as sleep quality and food choices; 10 clinical markers of health; 38 indicators of health spending, medical tests and doctor’s visits; and work-related measures such as absenteeism, job tenure and job performance.

“We wanted to explore the causal effects of workplace wellness programmes using the rigorous methods of an experimental design in order to help policymakers and employers make informed decisions about investing in wellness,” said Zirui Song, study author and assistant professor of health care policy and medicine in the Department of Health Care Policy, Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School.

Song recommended that organisations remained cautious in their expectations from corporate health and wellness interventions: “Our findings show that health behaviours can respond to a workplace wellness programme, but they also temper expectations of realising large returns on investment in the short term.”

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