Study Busts Major Myths About Workplace Wellness Programs

Tons of large U.S. employers have these programs — but they may not be as effective as we thought.

by Lara DeSanto Health Writer

More and more employers are hopping on the bandwagon of starting workplace wellness programs — you know, like “Wellness Wednesdays and other incentives your HR department offers you to get healthy — but how effective are they, really?

These programs have grown in popularity in recent years, to the point where now 80% of large U.S. employers offer them — as part of an $8 billion workplace wellness industry. But according to a new Harvard Medical School study, these programs don’t have very impressive results in the short term.

Published April 16 in JAMA, the study is the first major one of its kind that focuses on these workplace wellness programs, aiming to determine whether the decisions employers are making about investing in these programs are based on hard scientific fact. Bad news: The results showed that employees who worked at worksites offering a wellness program didn’t show better clinical measures of health (think body mass index, blood pressure, and cholesterol) after 18 months.

Another myth busted? Many of these workplace wellness programs tout the benefit of improving employees’ productivity on the job — in addition to the health benefits. But the study showed that employees in this program didn’t have fewer missed days of work or better job performance after the 18 months.

The third benefit these programs supposedly provide is an overall decrease in health care spending, thanks to fewer doctor’s visits — employees in the program didn’t show lower health care use or spending after the 18 months, either. Womp womp.

"Our findings show that health behaviors can respond to a workplace wellness program, but they also temper expectations of realizing large returns on investment in the short term," said study author Zirui Song, assistant professor of health care policy and medicine at Harvard Medical School, in a press release.

Logically, it makes sense why employers keep pushing these programs. If you, as an employer, can give your workers incentive to be healthier, then you’ll save money due to lower health care costs and fewer sick days — and, theoretically, your employee’s performance at work will improve. Further, the Affordable Care Act actually sets aside money for wellness programs like these.

But while past research seemed to suggest these workplace wellness programs were effective, and therefore, a good investment for employers, this new Harvard study pokes several large holes in that narrative.

How was the study done?

In a large-scale, randomized, and controlled experiment, researchers assessed 160 worksites across the Eastern United States — 20 (made up of 4,037 employees) were randomly selected to begin a new wellness program at different worksites of BJ’s Wholesale Club, a large U.S. warehouse retail company (you know the ones — where you go to get your toilet paper and bottled water in bulk). The remaining 140 BJ’s sites (totaling 28,936 employees) were used as a control group, with no wellness programs offered.

The wellness program was made up of eight modules, including nutrition, physical activity, and stress reduction. Registered dietitians were brought on site to help run these programs over an 18-month period from January 2015 through June 2016. And throughout the study, researchers collected and analyzed data from surveys, biometrics, administrative medical claims, and employment data.

So... Should employers stop offering these wellness programs?

It may sound like workplace wellness programs are basically useless, but that’s not the full story. The study authors are careful to note that 18 months is a relatively short period of time to monitor health improvements, so more research needs to be done.

And there were some aspects of the wellness program studied that were beneficial for employees, at least in terms of behavior: For example, compared with workplaces that didn’t offer wellness programs, sites that offered the program saw 8.3% more employees engaging in regular exercise and 13.6% actively managing their weight (at least according to what the employees themselves reported).

But that’s about where the positives ended. The study found that programs had no significant effects on other outcomes, including:

  • Overall health

  • Sleep quality

  • Food choices

  • Spending on doctor’s visits, medical tests, procedures, and prescription drugs

  • Absenteeism, job tenure, and job performance

Yeah... kind of a let-down.

"As we grow to understand how best to encourage healthy behavior, it may be that workplace wellness programs will play an important role in improving health and lowering the cost of health care," Song said in the press release. "For now, however, we should remain cautious about our expectations from such interventions. Rigorous research to measure the effects of such programs can help make sure we're spending society's health and wellness dollars in the most effective way."

Lara DeSanto
Meet Our Writer
Lara DeSanto

Lara is a former digital editor for HealthCentral, covering Sexual Health, Digestive Health, Head and Neck Cancer, and Gynecologic Cancers. She continues to contribute to HealthCentral while she works towards her masters in marriage and family therapy and art therapy. In a past life, she worked as the patient education editor at the American College of OB-GYNs and as a news writer/editor at