Employee wellness programs do pay off, the research is wrong

Employers believe in workplace wellness programs. More than eight in 10 large employers -- and half of small companies -- now sponsor at least one wellness initiative.

Companies invest more than $8 billion annually to help workers quit smoking, lose weight and exercise more. Some even offer stress and resilience training and programs to improve sleep and mental health.

But, is the investment paying off? Some of the research says not so much. But that same research is focusing on the wrong things.

The most recent study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, reports that wellness programs don't improve employees' health outcomes or save employers money.

Let us consider the JAMA study. Researchers tracked nearly 33,000 employees at BJ's, the wholesale grocer, and found no significant improvement in health outcomes for employees who participated compared to those who did not. However, researchers only evaluated the wellness program based on isolated metrics, such as employees' cholesterol levels or their overall spending on prescription drugs.

Narrow lens

These metrics do not capture the full benefits of well-being programs. Even the study's authors admitted that participating employees were more likely to watch their weight and exercise.

Health experts have long known that people who shed pounds typically sleep better, have more energy, and feel happier than people who remain overweight. Such positive changes might not show up in blood test results -- but they tangibly improve workers' lives both in and out of the workplace.

As with similar studies, the JAMA research measured effectiveness through a narrow lens. Rather than consider the positive impact of a more present, more productive, and more engaged workforce, research too often measures impact through isolated health indicators like blood pressure and cholesterol levels -- and determines success by looking at health-care savings.

WebMD's scoring system

To explore the snowball effect of good health practices, our team at WebMD Health Services designed a well-being program scoring system to measure how improving one area of health will, in turn, improve others.  Employees engaged in our health coaching program received an overall health score based on different variables like stress levels, diet, weight, sleep quality, and whether they undergo preventive screenings. The lower the score, the healthier the person.

Participants then received coaching to help them improve their health scores, either through lifestyle changes or better managing chronic conditions like diabetes or heart disease.

When looking at comprehensive health factors -- rather than isolated variables -- the program proved incredibly effective. Based on survey results from over 110,000 participants, we found two-thirds of workers who received coaching on their overall health, and half of participants who received coaching for chronic conditions, lowered their health risk scores.

The program lowered health-care spending, too. A year of lifestyle health coaching drove down the average employee's medical expenses by nearly $200. For employees managing chronic conditions, the savings were even greater. A year of coaching yielded over $1,100 in savings per employee.

Well-being programs can save employers money in other ways, too. Six in 10 executives say their wellness programs have improved workers' productivity and retention, according to the 2018 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends Survey.

Employee turnover is expensive -- on average, businesses spend $15,000 to replace a worker who quits. So by making employees happier and less likely to leave, well-being programs can save employers money even without directly lowering health-carespending.


Employers who roll out well-being programs not only retain a healthier, more productive workforce -- but they show they have their employees' best interests at heart. It's tough to think of a better investment.

John Harrison is the general manager of WebMD Health Services.