Did you know that in the U.S. “Workplace Wellness” has become a $6 billion industry? That’s how much employers pay vendors who sell workplace wellness programs designed to encourage employees to lose weight, lower their cholesterol, or stop smoking..
Today, firms lay out an average of $521 per employee per year on ‘wellness incentives’ such as gift cards for employees who shed pounds. That is more than double the $260 they spent in 2009 according to a recent survey by Fidelity Investments and the National Business Group on Health.
At first blush, this sounds like progress: Enlightened employers are doing their best to encourage employees to take care of themselves. There is just one catch: we have no hard evidence that these programs either improve health or lower health care bills.
Even Bruce Elliott, manager of compensation and benefits at the Society for Human Resource Management, the largest professional organization that represents benefits managers, is concerned. As employers chase Wellness, “the one things that does worry me is the utter lack of metrics and really, the utter lack of thought” Elliott recently told Bloomberg News, pointing to the “herd mentality” that seems to have overtaken the idea of “workplace wellness.”
A Rand Report Appears Briefly Online—and Disappears
Two weeks ago, Reuters broke a story about a RAND report on Wellness programs that was supposed to come out last winter. The report was mandated by the Affordable Care Act, and RAND delivered the analysis to the U.S. Department of Labor and the Department of Health and Human Services last fall.
According to Reuters’ reporter Sharon Begley, “Two sources close to the report expected it to be released publicly this past winter.” She added that “Reuters read the report when it was briefly posted online by RAND before being taken down because the federal agencies were not ready to release it, said a third source with knowledge of the analysis.”
RAND had collected information about wellness programs from about 600 businesses with at least 50 employees and analyzed medical claims collected by the Care Continuum Alliance, a trade association for the health and wellness industry.
Reuters revealed that the results were disappointing: “The programs that try to get employees to become healthier and reduce medical costs have only a modest effect. Those findings run contrary to claims by the mostly small firms that sell workplace wellness to companies ranging from corporate titans to mom-and-pop operations.”