For millions of workers into wellness, tests are back, and not good

on Apr16
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Customers move a cart full of water through a BJ's Wholesale Club Inc. store in Falls Church, Virginia.

Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Customers move a cart full of water through a BJ’s Wholesale Club Inc. store in Falls Church, Virginia.

For the tens of millions of American workers now enrolled in workplace wellness programs offered by four out of five large employers, it may be time to slow the treadmill.

A major new study suggests that as more rigorous scientific data becomes available, wellness is not living up to its early promise. The workers in the study did not experience improved health outcomes or better job performance, and neither employees nor the companies saw lower health-care costs.

The study, published Tuesday in The Journal of the American Medical Association, is one of the first large-scale studies of a corporate wellness program designed as a randomized trial. Researchers from Harvard and the University of Chicago tracked employees at a broad cross-section of BJ’s Wholesale Club worksites over a period of 18 months.

“If employers are launching a wellness program with hopes of a short-term or quick savings in health expenditures or absenteeism, this study should give them pause,” said Katherine Baicker, co-author of the study and dean at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy.

The wellness program did change health behaviors and awareness, but it did not result in measurable improvements in important physical health outcomes. “You can read that optimistically. The first step has to be paying more attention and having the information, capacity and ability to pay more attention to health behaviors,” Baicker said. “But is that sufficient to reduce blood pressure or improve diabetes? We don’t have evidence that it does.”

High cholesterol levels and hypertension did not differ between the test and control groups, the study found.

Randomizing the study was key to distinguishing this data from past work on wellness, she said.

“The studies that suggested improvements almost all suffered from not being able to tell what would happen in the absence of a program,” Baicker explained. “People who participate in wellness are the type of people already paying more attention to nutrition and exercise, and if you don’t have a good control group, you will think it has a stronger association with positive health outcomes.”

The study of close to 33,000 BJ’s workers was conducted at roughly 160 worksites.

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