Did Workplace Wellness Programs Ruin Workplace Wellness?

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I was a champion of workplace wellness programs long before they went mainstream. It was a time when getting management approval to purchase a $.50 per employee monthly healthy eating newsletter was an uphill battle. It was a time when CFOs and CEOs routinely dismissed workplace wellness programs as financially unproven. (If I recall correctly the terminology used was that there was no data to support the programs return on investment (ROI)). And it was a time when health insurance companies did not offer their own or any other workplace wellness program. A time before employer health plan privacy (HIPAA) and genetic discrimination (GINA) laws. A time when meeting individual wellness goals was not linked to health insurance premiums.

It was also a time when employees looked upon workplace wellness initiatives favorably. They enjoyed the colorful wellness newsletters placed in their payroll envelopes. They valued the gym membership discounts, no matter how small. They looked forward to the lunch-n-learn and lunchtime Weight Watchers meetings. This was fun stuff and anyone and everyone could participate or not.

Workplace Wellness Becomes a Program

But then things started to change. Employers upped the ante. HR department heads finally convinced CEOs that despite the lack of ROI data, a workplace wellness program was the best way to lower health insurance costs for the company. They started replacing the Snicker candy bars in the vending machine with granola bars. Bowls of apples, oranges and bananas replaced muffins and danish at staff meetings. On site fitness centers replaced outside gym membership discounts. And health risk assessments became step-one for most new programs. The metamorphosis was complete. Initiatives to promote healthy habits and awareness became programs designed to save the employer money.

However, the transition was not as smooth as employers had hoped. Employees balked at some of the changes, especially the ones that requested personal health information. They ignored the healthy snack options in vending machines and "traditional" options reappeared. All but the already inclined, bypassed the on site fitness centers. And when employers started to link participation in some wellness activities to employee health insurance premium deduction, federal regulators weighed in with concerns about possible discrimination.

None of this pushback means the end of workplace wellness. The adoption and maintenance of these programs by employers of all sizes remains strong. There's even a provision in the national health care reform law to expand them. It simply makes sense that an improvement in employee health results in lower health care costs, and, therefore, lower health insurance costs. But these financial gains have yet to happen.

Workplace Wellness Not Working That Well

Many have already concluded that workplace wellness programs do not result in lower health insurance costs for employers and never will. Some say, not yet and others claim that they actually do save employers some money. However, nearly everyone agrees that they are not as successful as they "should" be or that we want them to be.

You can blame the slow, almost non-existent progress of workplace wellness on many factors including program design and implementation, but I blame the "program" in workplace wellness programs. In the early days when benefits professionals like me focused our workplace wellness efforts on the individual, there was some hope of making a difference. However, when the focus became more about the financials than the people, it became a recipe for failure. Employers can control many things employees do, controlling their health habits is not one of them.

How do you feel about formal workplace wellness programs?
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