Recent Headlines, ‘Workplace Wellness Programs Barely Move the Needle’

You’ve probably read about the recent study to determine wellness ROI and address many of the flaws identified in past wellness research studies. The study authors are well-known wellness ROI researchers from Chicago and Harvard Universities. The research was conducted over 18 months and included 33,000 participants from 160 BJ Warehouses.

Findings indicate that employees reported healthier behaviors and weight managements, but no difference in health measures, health costs or absenteeism were noted — Hence the headlines. The authors noted that 18 months, although longer than most studies for ROI, is still not long enough to determine return on investment.

There are, however, other research limitations that have been noted. One glaring one is that the culture/context was never mentioned or apparently considered as an influencer or determinant of health. As Wendy Lynch stated,

     A workplace is a complex system. The notion that we can isolate the independent
effects of one, relatively-small intervention without considering the broader climate
and culture is both irrational and futile. 

Other limitations noted are that the wellness program implemented was not comprehensive and only focused on physical health and risk factors. Another drawback was the focus on health ROI alone.

Are the findings discouraging? It depends. If programs include and measure the same limited components, then the same discouraging outcomes will probably be found despite the large sample. But does this justify the headline for all workplace wellness?

We know otherwise. The paradigm of wellness is shifting to embrace elements beyond physical health alone, as well as other determining factors, including the culture and climate of the organization.

We have absolutely no doubt that employee and organizational well-being will flourish when wellness programs consider these broader aspects as well as include other measures of success.

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