- The hope in implementing a worker wellness program is that those who are not in the best of health use the resources such a program provides to improve their situation.
- 53% of American workers from small firms and 81% from large firms report having access to worker wellness programs.
- When studied, researchers found that those who use worker wellness program resources were already relatively healthy – and therefore, presumable, already well and productive.
Worker wellness programs – such as workplace-sanctioned ready access to health-related resources and facilities – are becoming popular in corporate America.
According to the Washington Post, as of 2020, most American workers have had some experience with worker wellness programs. Specifically, 53% of American workers from small firms and 81% from large firms report having access to worker wellness programs.
This multi-billion dollar industry that covers the needs of over 50 million American workers is advertised as an aid to employees’ health. The goal, in theory, is to improve the health and wellness of employees so as to improve their productivity and happiness on the job.
However, almost all of the research on worker wellness programs demonstrates that they do not work efficiently towards attaining their desired end goal.
Who uses worker wellness programs?
The hope in implementing a worker wellness program is that those who are not in the best of health use the resources such a program provides to improve their situation.
However, in practice, this isn’t how worker wellness programs pan out. Rather, research shows that those who use worker wellness programs tend to already be quite healthy and well employees.
This is evidenced by the fact that those who tend to participate in worker wellness programs had low medical expenditures and healthy behaviors prior to their participation, and that non-participants tended to have higher medical expenditures and unhealthier behaviors.
The intensity of lack of participation from those who would benefit most from large-scale worker wellness programs should not be understated.
Even when offered a substantial monetary incentive – which has been shown to improve the odds of participation in healthier workers – to participate in worker wellness programs, smokers and those with the highest medical costs still, on the whole, decline to participate.
In other words, despite the massive amounts of money companies are pumping into worker wellness programs, those who would benefit from the most, for the most part, refuse to participate.
Therefore, the primary goal of worker wellness programs – improving the health of the workforce – is generally not attained by such programs.
It is one thing for workers who already live healthy lifestyles to take advantage of worker wellness programs. But that is not the goal of these programs, as such workers would still take care of themselves outside of work hours even if these programs did not exist.
Rather, the goal was to help workers achieve a greater degree of health and well-being. And in theory, improving workers’ health is supposed to improve productivity and cut costs. On the whole, however, worker wellness programs have failed in achieving these goals.
Large-scale studies show that large-scale worker wellness programs do not cut healthcare costs. Nor do they often change employee behaviors and work outcomes.
In study after study, such findings are quite reliable. At best, studies show that self-reports of health slightly improve through such programs.
But in terms of measurable empirical improvements on the salient goals of worker wellness programs, it is true to say that they are largely useless.
Are worker wellness programs completely useless?
The picture that the empirical research on worker wellness programs paints is somewhat dreary. If they don’t work, why do we have them? Should we get rid of worker wellness programs? Are they good for anything?
Firstly, no, we should not get rid of worker wellness programs, and this is for a few reasons. For example, workers with pre-existing healthy lifestyles use these programs. Such workers should not be punished for other workers’ lack of participation.
Rather, the strategy that would be most effective is one that alters these programs in a way that draws more workers into participating in them. This cannot entail monetary gain, as that’s already been proven ineffective.
Instead, what it may entail is getting at the root of behaviors that run counter to positive health outcomes. The hardest challenge for these programs is changing behaviors, and therefore, that should be the focus of them.
Changing health behaviors is quite challenging. However, research suggests that some of the most significant factors in determining such behavioral changes consist in living conditions and income, leading to a lack of access to basic health resources like primary care doctors and gyms.
Hence, these programs, if they’re to be effective in changing behaviors that run counter to good health, they must take living conditions, income, and their related effects into account.
The empirical research on worker wellness programs is unencouraging. Not only do they fail to improve worker wellness, but they also fail to cut costs – if anything, they’re profoundly expensive for what little results they yield.
When studied, researchers found that those who use worker wellness program resources were already relatively healthy – and therefore, presumable, already well and productive.
This, however, does not mean such programs should be done away with. They can be altered to draw in workers who would benefit from them the most – workers who, as it stands, are most resistant to changing their health-related behaviors.