Employee Wellness Push: Smart Business, or a Waste of Time?

There’s a longstanding premise that a lot of managers and HR professionals buy into, and it goes like this: If you can get your employees to exercise, eat better, lose weight and generally take better care of themselves, your company will benefit by lower health premiums, more productive workers, and a better overall bottom line.

But, is this premise accurate? And can you really encourage employees – primarily through financial incentives — to work harder at being healthier?

At this point, the jury is out on all of that.

“About 15 to 20 U.S. studies have tried to evaluate the effect of financial incentives on weight loss,” writes Associated Press medical writer Mike Stobbe in a story in the New Orleans Times Picuyane. “Most of those studies were small and didn’t look at whether such measures worked beyond a few months. None could make conclusions about how much money it takes to make a lasting difference for most people.”

And as Stobbe’s story points out, “At least a third of U.S. companies offer financial incentives, or are planning to introduce them, to get their employees to lose weight or get healthier in other ways.” This is despite a lack of any hard data or research that actually shows that financial incentives to employees for losing weight makes a difference.

“About 15 to 20 U.S. studies have tried to evaluate the effect of financial incentives on weight loss.,” Stobbe writes. “Most of those studies were small and didn’t look at whether such measures worked beyond a few months. None could make conclusions about how much money it takes to make a lasting difference for most people. Perhaps the largest effort to date was an observational study by Cornell. It looked at seven employer programs, and the results were depressing: The average weight loss in most was little more than a pound.”

“It’s probably a waste of time,” said Kelly Brownell, director of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, yet despite that harsh assessment, business and organizations everywhere seem to think that investing in employee wellness makes good sense.

“Some 53 percent of polled companies incorporate a disease management or health improvement program, according to a 2010 survey of 600 health benefit programs including 350 of the largest U.S. employers by Hewitt Associates,” The Philadelphia Inquirer noted. “Of the remaining employers, 86 percent plan to add this type of health component in the next three to five years.”

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A lot of organizations seem to be doing that right now. For example:

The list of companies and organizations launching wellness programs could go on and on, but you get the picture. The wellness trend is in full swing, especially since so many businesses are anticipating increases in benefit costs as a result of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (the PPACA, known more popularly as ObamaCare).

But are such programs a smart business decision, or just a costly waste of time with no discernible ROI? Only time will tell but clearly, the wellness trend is not going away anytime soon.


John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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