Are workplace health and wellness programs actually effective?

This week a new study published in the American Journal of Health Promotion found nearly half of all American workplaces offer some kind of health or wellness program for employees, with smaller companies being a little less likely to have one (39 percent of workplaces with 10-24 employees offer such a program) and bigger companies being much more likely (92 percent of workplaces with 500 or more employees offer one). Almost 30 percent of workplaces offered programs specifically focused on fitness and physical activity, 19 percent offered something related to quitting tobacco, and 17 percent offered programs targeting weight loss.

“Most American adults work, and many spend half or more of their waking hours at work,” said Dr. Laura Linnan, a University of North Carolina health behavior professor, founding director of the Carolina Collaborative for Research on Work and Health, and lead author of the study, in a news release. “Where we work, how long we work, the conditions of our work, who we work with—all of these factors impact our health. Employers have an opportunity to shape work environments and work conditions in ways that support employee health.”

Small steps matter.

We’ve seen recent studies suggesting workplace wellness programs might actually provide “little benefit.” Last week, a large study of some 33,000 workers across 160 BJ’s Wholesale Club facilities found wellness programs to be largely ineffective—but the research’s definition of effectiveness is worth noting. Several of these new, buzzy studies on these company offerings focus on “effectiveness” from the employer’s perspective—and specifically with financial savings being a main motivator. Indeed, the research shows these programs don’t cut down health care costs for the employer (or the employee).

But that BJ’s study last week did show that people who engage with these programs do go on to exercise and engage in weight-management practices more regularly because of the programs. (The researchers called the improvement in these areas “sizable and robust.”) For employers that actually care about their employees’ well-being (and not just how it affects their bottom line), that’s huge! It’s extremely difficult to change or even affect people’s attitudes and habits when it comes to exercise and healthy eating, and if workplace programs are even marginally successful at nudging people in the right direction, that’s a worthwhile success.

That’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement in these programs. Indeed, other markers of health—blood pressure, sugar levels, and self-reported health—showed no difference between employees with and without the workplace wellness programs at BJ’s facilities. But the researchers behind this study do note that those types of clinical health outcomes might appear with time: “Given that workplace wellness programs focus on changing behavior and that behavior change may precede improvements in other outcomes, these findings could be consistent with future improvements in health or reductions in spending,” they write in the paper.

They also emphasized that their results don’t suggest we should toss these initiatives out the window; rather, it’s simply still a new field with a lot of room for growth to figure out what actually helps.

For example, in his book Mindful Work, New York Times business reporter David Guelles reports that Aetna attributes a 7 percent drop in its own employee health care costs in 2012 (which equated to some $6 million for them) to its introduction of a mindfulness initiative for its employees.

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A wellness-focused culture can make a difference.

From an individual’s perspective, the existence of these programs alone can be a helpful first-glance guide to understanding a workplace’s values around employee well-being.

A survey by the American Psychological Association of about 1,500 working people found less than half of them felt like their company cared about their well-being. But 73 percent of workers who had senior management actively supporting company wellness initiatives said their company was helping them develop a healthier lifestyle. That suggests there’s something about the environment in which a company’s culture and leadership focuses on wellness that’s helpful to an employee’s health.

The APA found that this culture of support for company wellness initiatives was associated with a bunch of well-being outcomes for workers: more motivation to do their best at work (91 percent of those with wellness-program-supporting leadership felt this way vs. 38 percent of those in corporate cultures that didn’t prioritize wellness initiatives), more job satisfaction (91 percent vs. 30 percent), and more positive relationships with supervisors (91 percent vs. 54 percent) and co-workers (93 percent vs. 72 percent). Employees in these pro-wellness environments were also more likely to say their company was a good place to work (89 percent vs. 17 percent) and nearly half as likely to say they planned on quitting their job in the next year (25 percent vs. 51 percent).

A 2015 Singaporean study also found organizational support for mindfulness predicts how much mindfulness employees actually practice in the workplace, and that mindfulness was linked with less emotional exhaustion, more job satisfaction, and better job performance. A 2013 Chinese study directly showed well-being initiatives improved employees’ sense of control over their jobs and ability to handle the mental load of the work.

These findings suggest there are still some significant benefits to be gained from workplace wellness programs, particularly for workers’ mental health, for learning healthy practices to pursue outside the workplace, and for demonstrating and recognizing a company that truly cares about its workers’ health without any strings attached.

There’s more work to be done in figuring out how to make these programs more effective, but the fact that nearly half of all American companies offer wellness programs is welcome news. Companies that will prioritize your well-being do exist—and they’re worth seeking out.

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