New Study: Corporate Wellness Program Success is Difficult to Measure

by: Nichole Gunn July 14, 2011

A study conducted by Duke University in 2010 found that U.S. worker health and productivity costs connected with obesity were estimated at over $73 billion yearly. This is a staggering amount and employers are taking note of the importance of implementing corporate wellness programs to help curtail healthcare and related expenses.

According to a report by Boston Globe, companies are using healthy eating and weight loss strategies to get a handle on poor lifestyle choices that are affecting their bottom lines. But, based on a study from the National Institute of Health Care Management employers are finding it difficult to actually measure the effectiveness of their wellness programs. Finding tools or strategies to determine the impact the programs are having on employee health and company savings is problematic for most businesses.

Study researcher Katherine Baicker, Harvard School of Public Health professor, explained that a number of variables among wellness initiatives offered by companies makes it difficult to compare the effectiveness of corporate wellness programs among companies. Adding to the mix is that program failures aren’t talked about which obscures the matter even more.

One hundred health and wellness programs were analyzed by Baicker and the other researchers. Of those hundred, 22 were selected based on the fact that they provided measureable and specific costs and absenteeism figures. Results showed that there was an average reduction in employers’ medical expenses of $3.27 for every dollar invested in the programs. In regard to absenteeism, the reduction was $2.73 for every dollar spent.

While the wellness programs varied, the majority of employers focused on exercise, helping employees quit smoking, weight loss, and reducing blood pressure. Incentives offered included a wide range of rewards, such as, paid time off from work, gift certificate/cards, and monetary awards. Eligibility also varied; employees might be rewarded for joining in the programs and others for reaching targeted health objectives.

The Weatherford Democrat reported that Weatherford, Texas offered a $300 cash award plus a paid day off to the winners of its yearly “biggest loser contest.”

Harvard Pilgrim Health Care in Massachusetts focuses on activities that will help reduce stress. Program features include: sleep seminars, organic gardening, mediation classes, and finance management classes.

Vice president of medical management at Harvard Pilgrim Judith Frampton explains that those businesses targeting a reduction in healthcare expenses are missing the bulls-eye, as this area is only 25 percent of the expenses related to healthcare. Absenteeism and presenteeism account for the other 75 percent of the expenses. Presenteeism is the factor of workers who are present at work but are not being optimally productive because of stress or illness.