workplace wellness programs aren’t so effective — surprise!

A new study has found that employer wellness programs — workplace programs that encourage employees to lose weight, manage their stress better, or make other lifestyle changes, with the aim of saving employers money on health care costs — resulted in no net savings at all.

Here’s an excerpt from the New York Times about the study:

A study by RAND researchers and executives of PepsiCo, published online Monday in the journal Health Affairs, found that programs aimed at helping people with chronic illnesses stay healthy, by educating them and reminding them to take medication, resulted in significant cost savings. But so-called lifestyle management offerings, which aim to reduce health risks through programs focusing on weight loss or stress management, resulted in no net savings at all.

The study examined more than 67,000 people eligible to participate in PepsiCo’s “Healthy Living” wellness program, which includes both disease management and lifestyle components for employees and their families. (PepsiCo provided funding for the study.) … Researchers estimate that disease management lowered health costs by $136 per member per month, mostly thanks to a 29 percent reduction in hospital admissions. Lifestyle programs, however, had no significant effect on health care costs.

… The RAND findings don’t mean that lifestyle programs don’t have benefits; participants reported a small drop in absenteeism, for instance. But the lifestyle portion of the program “did not provide more savings than it cost to offer,” Dr. Mattke said.

This is bad news for the company whose wellness program included publicly sharing employees’ weights and other companies that have been annoying their employees with misplaced wellness initiatives … and comes as no surprise to those of us who feel that our lifestyle choices are none of our employers’ business and would strongly prefer that they keep their guidance to us work-related rather than attempting to act as doctor, parent, or nanny.

{ 176 comments… read them below }

  1. Mike C.*

    I really can’t wait for these overbearing, paternalistic policies to go the hell away. I’m really getting tired of people thinking they know my health better than myself and my doctor because they sign my paycheck.

    1. Clever Name*

      What gets me is that the tips are so lame. Eat more vegetables and exercise. Popcorn is a great snack! Take the stairs instead of the elevator. *sigh*

  2. Dan*

    I’m an overweight mathematician.

    The overweight part of me is what it is. Yeah I can try harder in some regards, but for me, it’s all about finding a lifestyle that works. Clearly I haven’t found it yet if I’m still overweight :)

    The mathematician in me is sympathetic to how lifestyle choices impact health insurance costs. Some companies I’ve applied to will disqualify smokers. Do they cross the line? Shouldn’t an employer have the ability to take steps to lower their health care costs? If we care to much about employers getting into our personal lives, shouldn’t they get out of the health insurance business altogether?

    In any event, arguing over that is arguing about a symptom, not a problem. Health care shouldn’t be tied to our jobs. Separate that, and you’ll solve a few problems.

    The flip side is that the overweight guy in me knows I’m getting better coverage through the group policy I have at work than I would if I had to go on the independent market. If my employer stopped offering health insurance, there’s no guarantee (and in fact far from it) that they’d pass that savings onto my paycheck.

    1. the gold digger*

      I considered declining my employer’s crummy insurance to stay on my husband’s plan. If I could have gotten the full premium to me instead as a bump in pay, it would have been enough to cover the incremental premium on my husband’s plan and the penalty they charge if the spouse has insurance available through a job. But my employer won’t give you any credit to not be on the plan, even though it could be to their financial benefit.

  3. Elizabeth West*

    My company has one, but no one is required to do anything. I know people who do take advantage of it. The majority who practice good exercise and eating habits seem to be those who would do it anyway, or who have outside incentives. Mine is skating–I’ve been motivated to increase off-ice training for a test and a future competition, and it has nothing to do with work. Nor do they need to know any numbers.

    1. Windchime*

      Ours doesn’t ask for numbers on weight, but we have to enter in blood pressure numbers and we have tons of tracking that must be entered. Nobody is required to participate, but your premiums go up by something like $50/month if you don’t meet the requirements. I go along with it because I don’t want to get dinged the $50, but I don’t like it.

      1. Elizabeth West*


        We do have to do screenings (your doctor can do it), but there isn’t any place you have to enter your weight, thank God. Anyway, I don’t know mine, because I won’t let the doctor’s office tell me. I make them scribble out the number on the paperwork they give me.

      2. Julie*

        We have something like that, too, and I really don’t like it either.

        My company requires employees and dependents to pass three out of five biometric screening tests. They take blood pressure, BMI, triglycerides, HDL cholesterol, and blood sugar levels.

        I talked with my doctor about it, and she said that BMI is not a reliable test for a person’s good health, and she was really surprised that it was being measured.

        For each employee and/or dependent who doesn’t pass three out of the five areas, the company requires the employee to pay a $40 per paycheck (which is every other week) surcharge. That can really add up, so I hope we all pass!

        I don’t appreciate having my employer in my personal business, but I can’t choose different insurance because it’s more expensive to select insurance from the exchange if your employer offers insurance that meets certain requirements.

        1. The Company Librarian*

          That sounds like it could count as discrimination, since certain health conditions could cause someone to fail the test and have to pay the surcharge.

        2. Victoria Nonprofit*

          Shut the front door. Some folks – folks with health challenges, who, um, could maybe do something else with that money? – are paying an extra $80/month? That’s horrible.

        3. ali*

          I wonder if we work for the same company because this is my company’s policy as well. And as someone with chronic diseases, I opted out of the screening and am paying the extra money. While that bothers me that I have to pay more, I still pay way less for my premium than I would if I weren’t covered at all or even if I had a different plan. $80/month is trivial compared to the $468,000/year I’d be paying out of pocket without insurance.

      3. Chinook*

        I have a problem with even entering my blood pressure numbers. Mine shot through the roof a year ago, probably triggered by the flu, but is due 100% to genetics. I have a healthy BMI, I am active and I cook from scratch but the women in my family have had high blood pressure for the last 100 years (probably longer but no one was measuring it in rural New Brunswick). If my great grandmother had the drugs I have today, she would have lived past 40. How is any program going to help that? Instead, I would routinely be targeted for lifestyle changes to take me off my drugs and stared down every time I treated myself to fries (which I do only in the smallest amount and on rare occasions).

        1. Victoria Nonprofit*

          Yes. And I’m the opposite: I’m very overweight, but all my other numbers are very good. These measures are obviously too blunt of an instrument. Ugh.

        2. Rana*

          Same here. Genetically high levels of cholesterol run in my family; they are slightly responsive to the usual diet/exercise/whatever but unless I’m taking statins, they stay high. And statins are expensive, and they are also incompatible with pregnancy and breastfeeding.

          So any policy that penalizes someone for high cholesterol levels (or similar conditions) is discriminatory in a lot of rather unsavory ways.

  4. PEBCAK*

    Did they look at how it affected turnover? That would be interesting to me.

    Also, several place I’ve worked have subsidized gym memberships. I wonder what that does, if anything.

    1. CC*

      I’ve also worked at a place with subsidized gym memberships. What it meant to me was free gym membership for the year.

      Now whether those who take advantage of the cost savings use their gym membership or not… that’s probably about the same split as those who buy a gym membership on their own. So it’s a definite benefit to those who would be doing those activities anyway, but not sure about how well it works as an incentive to those who wouldn’t be.

      1. Julie*

        If I had a free gym membership, I would SO use it. A few years ago, I won a raffle prize that was a six month gym membership, and I used the heck out of it! That kind of thing is a much better incentive for me to exercise and lose weight than financial penalties (I passed the biometric screening last year, and I expect to pass this year, but I just don’t appreciate having to do it at all).

        1. CC*

          Awesome! I know that there exist a lot of people out there who buy gym memberships then don’t use them, and a lot of people who buy memberships and do use them, and people who don’t buy and don’t use, but there’s not a lot of talk of people who would use if they could afford. I was sure they had to be out there (same split as those who would buy regardless was my estimate), but for some reason they aren’t a group that gets talked about the way the other three are.

  5. Jubilance*

    My company has a wellness plan, and last year they instituted a policy where in order to get the company provided contribution for our HSA, we had to do the biometric screening. Other than that, I’ve never utilized the company wellness portal. I think it’s great in theory but I have yet to see it implemented in a way that is beneficial for most employees.

    1. Andrea*

      My husband’s employer just instituted this policy, as well—they have to have a physical at work in order to get that contribution. His HR director stated in an email that spouses and dependents won’t have to have a physical to get it…”at least not this year.” The wellness plan administrators have also said that they won’t share the health information with the employer but that they will tell the company which employees are driving costs up based on the results of the health screening. No one is thrilled about this and we’re all assuming that they’ll raise rates on employees who cost more to cover. And I guess that would be fine if it was just based on something like tobacco use, but for example, my husband is slender, healthy, and fit, never smoked, and drinks only occasionally, but his cholesterol tends to be borderline / high, which runs in his family. So we’re just bracing for the company to use that as an excuse to charge us more for coverage that isn’t very good in the first place.

      1. WM*

        “The wellness plan administrators have also said that they won’t share the health information with the employer but that they will tell the company which employees are driving costs up based on the results of the health screening. No one is thrilled about this and we’re all assuming that they’ll raise rates on employees who cost more to cover.”

        ^^I wouldn’t worry too much about that part, as it’s highly illegal for a provider to share results that identify a high cost claimant to the company, nonetheless raise premiums on those claimants. When I say highly illegal, I mean your company would be on CNN. It would be BAD for them.

        1. Andrea*

          Can you post a link reference to that information? Because they have said, explicitly, that they will not reveal health information to the company (employer), but that they will identify the employees who are driving up costs (or could reasonably be expected to do so). I figured that as long as they didn’t share the health information, then it was probably legal…just a bad idea. But are you saying otherwise?

          1. WM*

   Check out page 8 – outlines how HIPPA impacts a wellness program.

            The key here is that this assumes your company actually follows federal laws… if they hire a legitimate provider to execute a wellness / incentive program you have nothing to worry about. Now, if your company’s idea of a wellness program is a biggest loser competition administered by the guy in accounting; then yeah, I’d be concerned about my data as well.

            However; if your company has hired an outside provider to administer a biometric screening, handle data securely, etc – you don’t have to worry about the claims of increased premiums for high risk /high cost members – it’s illegal, period. Hope this helps!

            BTW, if your company is standing firm that increases will occur based on screening results – I would encourage you to speak to HR about your concerns, ASAP. Hopefully the communication is just misleading/inaccurate as opposed to how the program is actually designed.

              1. WM*

                No problem, I hope it helps! If your husband’s company is really rolling out a train wreck of a program – have him suggest getting some “advice” from industry experts – WELCOA is a good organization to start with, in terms of reading about what works and what doesn’t.

    2. Penny*

      That sucks, I wouldn’t be happy if they took a benefit and made it dependent on doing that. But my company offered an incentive in the form of a refund on benefits paid if you did the screening. I’m a big baby and almost hyperventilated when they did the finger prick, but it was worth $200.

      1. Julie*

        My firm claims that they didn’t get good enough results when they tried rewards, which I guess means people still went to the doctor and had health issues and basically didn’t stop using their health insurance benefit. You could get a $50 gift card if you completed a health assessment questionnaire, and if you did three phone calls with a nurse, you got $150, I think. So now they’re penalizing people financially by covering less of their premiums if they don’t pass the biometric screening. I wonder if they will see any better “results” with this plan. As a few people have mentioned already in the comments, there are health issues that are not easily “fixed,” even when the insured is doing his/her best. (And I’m not saying that we shouldn’t all do our best to exercise and eat healthfully, but it is irksome to have an employer looking over your shoulder and second-guessing your health decisions.)

    3. Ellie H.*

      I would absolutely lose it if I had to undergo biometric screening to get that benefit (which I feel very lucky to get at all – I just mean that if they made it conditional upon screening I’d be furious).
      The place I work very aggressively advertises their biometric screenings, wellness sessions, relationship counseling, etc. I find it incredibly creepy and invasive. I have my own doctor.

  6. fposte*

    I think there’s some wellness initiative here, but it’s mostly the odd email.

    Meanwhile, our insurance is hanging in limbo. Whee!

  7. FiveNine*

    I don’t participate in my company’s wellness plan because I do feel that it’s unreasonably intrusive (and I don’t trust that information submitted through it wouldn’t eventually be used against me in some way).

    At the same time, I can’t imagine that there’s been enough years of corporate wellness programs in place to effectively determine whether a preventive health care approach is or is not cost-effective for the employer.

  8. Jamie*

    I think most of those wellness plans are way too big brothery for my liking.

    If they want to offer cut rate gym memberships, great, assuming the money for that isn’t coming out of the bonus/raise bucket.

    You can’t force lifestyle changes on people – but by the same token I have no problem with different premium rates for different levels of risk and liability.

    My employer didn’t have a wellness program last year and I quit smoking anyway. My employer still doesn’t have a wellness program and I’ve lost 34 lbs in the last 2.5 months.

    And if we did have a wellness plan I wouldn’t have submitted either for their kudos because it would still be none of their business.

    I have worked for places with stringent plans and without any and there is no noticeable difference in the employees.

    1. the gold digger*

      My employer has a wellness program. You can get a discount on your health insurance premium – but one of the requirements is they have to draw a blood sample.

      My blood and what might be in it are none of my employer’s business.

      1. Judy*

        I don’t smoke, and never have.

        We’ve had a (small) increase in premium of about $400/year for smokers that was self report. This year the additional premium is $1200/adult/year if you’re a smoker, and you have to have a nicotine blood test to prove you don’t smoke.

        1. Judy*

          Oh, and they’re tying the contribution to the health dollars to 3 metrics: BMI<30, fasting glucose <100, blood pressure < 140/80. You do a baseline reading and if you don't meet the metric, but you improve the number by 10% you get the money. This is another $1000/adult/year.

          1. Zelos*

            I’d hit every single one of those metrics you stated, and yet I still won’t call myself healthy…because I don’t exercise enough. The only exercises I can do that doesn’t bother my knee–much–are walking and swimming, and for both of them I’m limited by time (and lack of a car, which contributes to lack of time). All those metrics of fitness: flexibility, strength, endurance, ambient pulse (there’s six metrics in total, right?)…they’re all average to bad for me. And I bet I can easily find people in my social circle who have worse metrics but better health.

            Those metrics are a good general guideline, but to rely on them for bonuses is pretty unfair.

          2. Jamie*

            This is a weird question – but I have two relatives (not me) who have always weighed considerably more than they look like they should.

            And they are both very thin. And both of them have doctors weigh them more than once because they assume the scale is wrong. These are thin and not at all muscular people – so without added muscle what’s causing the density?

            For example, my son’s are 6’2.5″ and 6’3″. They both wear the same size clothes (29″ waist) and are both remarkably thin. One weighs 148 and the other 182. According to a calc online I just found one has a BMI of 22.7 and the other 18.

            So two co-workers could have the same size and build, but if it’s closer to a cutoff one could be okay and the other have to pay?

            I don’t know how common this is, I’m just wondering because I’m not sure you can accurately calculate BMI just with weight and height.

            1. the_scientist*

              BMI is actually just a measurement of height and weight which is why it’s a terrible measurement at an individual level. Quick epidemiology lesson: BMI is great for measuring the health of the population, but doesn’t titrate down to the individual. It’s a terrible metric and doctors shouldn’t use it.

              1. Stephanie*

                Yup, this. While I am overweight (and working on it!), my BMI would indicate that I should be in a Hover Round since I do a fair amount of strength training and am also naturally very busty.

              2. Allison*

                Sadly, way too many doctors do. I’d love to find a practice where they don’t, but I’m not optimistic that’s even possible.

            2. KellyK*

              What the_scientist said. Is it body fat % you’re thinking of, rather than BMI? (BMI tends to get used as a shorthand for body fat because it can be measured without immersing you in water or running current through your body or breaking out the calipers, but it’s just a height/weight ratio.)

            3. esra*

              BMI is not terribly reliable for the reasons you’ve mentioned here. If your build is thick or slight, or not whatever average was used, you end up falling outside of an acceptable range.

              1. VintageLydia*

                To add the “average” person used was male, so busty women like me–who are blessed even when we are skinny–will always have a higher BMI.

      2. WM*

        “My blood and what might be in it are none of my employer’s business.”

        Actually, I would argue this – if you’re on a company-sponsered health plan. To (loosely) quote commenter Dan; how we can expect an employer to foot the bill for our insurance costs if they can’t have any impact whatsoever in our health?

        Also – as I mentioned on another comment, it’s highly illegal for your employer to find out “what’s in your blood.” (FYI – biometric screenings only test for lipids and glucose, and occasionally cotinine – a byproduct of nicotine to determine tobacco use status – so no one is going to find anything alarming in your blood, except maybe high cholesterol.) This stuff is locked down tight – labs can only perform tests on what you’ve signed a consent form for. If you didn’t provide consent for a pregnancy test and the lab your company hired ran one on your blood – then you can be upset, very. Although, that lab will be probably be on CNN with the company who increased premiums for high cost claimants, so you know – karma.

        1. Julie*

          The employer offers the health insurance benefit as a way to entice good candidates to apply to work at their companies. They are not forced to do this. They can decide if they don’t want to offer it as a benefit, and they can put all kinds of restrictions on it – as many are doing – but they are NOT doing people a FAVOR by offering it in the first place. I’m sure they feel that they are trying to cut costs from the health insurance benefit so they don’t have to cut costs elsewhere, and obviously it’s legal (in the U.S.) for them to do so. But I could really do without the moral, and sometimes judgmental tone, that often accompanies these changes.

    2. LV*

      Would you mind if I asked how you managed to lose 34 pounds in 2.5 months? I’ve been exercising and counting calories and losing/gaining the same 5 pounds over and over again for as long as I can remember.

      1. Victoria Nonprofit*

        I’m not queen of the world (or this forum), but I’d strongly prefer that this conversation NOT happen here. There are thousands (or millions?) of sites online that cover weight loss and fitness plans. It’s frankly a relief to not encounter that here.

        1. Jamie*

          Sorry – I should have thought of that before answering.

          Alison – do you mind deleting my post below?

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I hate to just delete that after you typed it all out, especially when some people will find it interesting and helpful, so I might suggest we just be mindful of it in the future… although if you do want it deleted, let me know and it shall happen.

            1. Jamie*

              Yep – please delete it from here, thanks. :)

              I copied it and will toss in in open thread for anyone who is interested.

              I should have thought of that to begin with.

  9. EM*

    I agree that employers shouldn’t push people to participate in wellness programs or monitor their health/well-being (especially when it can lead to discrimination against employees who are less healthy), but as a health researcher, I really do think that there is an imperative to make workplaces healthier. There is tons of evidence that sitting for long periods of the day makes people unhealthier, and that convenience matters most for making healthy choices. Employers providing people with flexibility to get some exercise during the day, or offering healthy options in cafeterias, are really basic ways to let employees try and improve their health. There is a very serious chronic disease problem in North America, and we spend a majority of our waking hours at work. Current WWP methods are imperfect, but they’re evolving through studies like this. And if in some way the time we spend in the office can be made less detrimental to our well-being, then we should try and figure out how.

    1. A Cita*

      I also do research in health sciences and services and completely agree. There are better ways to do it that don’t involve invasions of privacy and are opt in. Convenience is the biggest thing, and I would love to have something in place that allowed for mid day exercise or healthier options or my favorites: options for a standing desk or treadmill desk (for gentle, non-sweaty walking while working). NCDs are epidemic and since we do spend most of our hours at work, it makes sense to have some work-related options.

    2. the_scientist*

      YES! One million times this. I’m an epidemiologist by training and this is a huge area of research…the sedentary nature of the workplace is one of the biggest factors in making us so unhealthy. There are many ways employers can genuinely foster a healthy lifestyle, but many of them are seen to impact the bottom line ($$) despite evidence that happier, healthier employees are more productive. Genuine wellness programs focus on making it easy for employees to be healthier- doing things like:
      -not forcing employees to work insane hours to get their work done, so they have the time and energy for cooking meals and exercising
      -managing output, not minutes, so that employees don’t feel pressured out of taking breaks/lunches (that could be used for errands, going for a run/walk, making a quick trip to the gym/yoga class/whatever)
      -making healthy eating options readily available and, ideally, subsidized (I worked for a place with a subsidized employee cafeteria and it was the best thing about the place)
      – putting in standing/walking desks, creating welcoming offices with lots of natural light
      -offering discounts on gym memberships, but also other healthy activities that aren’t necessarily offered or organized by the company

      Just to name a few, of course

      1. Elaine*

        +1 That’s great. Especially the output vs. time. I feel bad for our union employees (except those that must be on shift, like nurses).

        Also, non-obtrusive incentives are nice. My employer is a hospital/university, and pays $ for bike commuting. They also offer free Weight Watchers, and employees covered under their health plan (I am not) can get $$$ off by hitting six of ten options: annual flu shot, Weight Watcher attendance, etc. etc.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        The irony isn’t lost on me. The employees have to with stand all sorts of scrutiny but the employer gets off scott- free.

        I was reading something about in Japan young people were dying because of their high pressure jobs. They even have a name for this “disease”.

        Here, we see it over and over “I am doing the work of three people because my company laid off the other two.” That cannot possibly be a healthy work place.

        I think the change has to start with the company and then let the employees find their own paths. For example, you can not possibly eat a healthy lunch in 30 minutes. Food needs to be properly chewed that is part of the digestion process. If it takes an employee ten minutes to get to the break room and heat their food then all they have is 20 minutes to eat it. Whoops got to allow time to run to the bathroom and get back to work without over-running that 30 minute mark.
        I have worked for so many places where drinking water was not allowed. Dehydration causes so many health problems. One of these places sent a person around to check what was in my lunch kit. I really could not control my laughter.

        I had a friend that worked until 5 AM. He went home to sleep for an hour and consequently was late for his next work day. When he explained to the boss why he was late, the boss said “That’s not a reason.”
        Lack of sleep also causes huge amounts of health issues.

        Companies ought to look at what they are doing to drive up health care cost and let the employees figure out their individual needs by themselves.

        1. Girasol*

          +1000 I wish employers would change the workplace and not the employees. I read every day that most Americans don’t take lunch breaks any more, putting paid to the bright eyed wellness program advice “Why not take a walk on your lunch break?” Most Americans don’t use the vacation time they are given. Many people who used to go home and enjoy life outside work are on the job electronically 24×7 now. Many people suffer from workplace bullying. It would seem like improving employee health could start with a healthy workplace, not blood tests.

    3. Penny*

      I agree. I’m not going to go get a gym membership and schedule time to workout, but when my company offers workout classes twice a week in the building at 4:30, heck yeah I’ll do it. So you’re getting me to exercise when I normally wouldn’t because of the sheer convenience.

    4. Elizabeth*

      Reading through some of the comments here, I feel like I’m extremely lucky. My workplace’s wellness initiatives are a) a healthy lunch with lots of fresh, in-season vegetables (I work in a private school, and when they decided to make lunch included in tuition, it also became a benefit for faculty & staff!), and b) on-campus weekly yoga and boot camp classes, partially subsidized to make them more affordable. The classes are purely for folks who are interested and there’s no pressure to do them, but for people who want to work out it’s very convenient since it’s right there.

      I don’t know if either of these winds up affecting the bottom line on the school’s health care costs, but it definitely has a positive impact on morale. (Which also probably indirectly improves people’s health!)

    5. Linea*

      Coincidentally, just yesterday on TED I watched a very interesting speech by the mayor of Oklahoma City, where he talked about measures his administration took to remove their city from lists of “America’s most obese cities”.
      Yes, they had a website where people could track their weight loss and exercise and whatnot (on this basis they “reached” their goal of collectively losing 1 million pounds), but what impressed me more is that they actually changed/are changing the city to be more conducive to a healthier lifestyle (introducing sidewalks, parks, bike tracks etc.).
      (The video:
      I think this could be a great lesson for employers, too – goals and tracking measurements won’t really help unless they offer infrastructure or possibility for a healthier workday.
      As an aside, an example I really appreciate at my employer (a university) – there is a gym on campus plus it is situated next to a huge park (for running or walking or cycling), and what I love is that we have showers for employees in each building. So if you do exercise in your break, or cycle or walk to work, you can shower and change.

  10. Emily*

    My company instituted a voluntary wellness program a couple years ago in response to a huge spike in insurance payouts. It includes 3 free sessions with a wellness coach, incentives for self-reported healthy behavior (getting enough sleep, drinking water, eating well, working out), subsidized gym memberships, etc. You can pick and choose what you participate in. I’ve taken advantage of the wellness coaching sessions, but don’t want to measure my activities – I already track too many numbers for my employer to want to add personal info to that!

    It seems to have made a difference, as our insurance costs stabilized last year and actually dropped this year.

    That said, I’m not a fan of mandatory wellness programs. My husband’s employer, for instance, just began requiring quarterly wellness activities and tracking employee’s health numbers (weight, cholesterol, etc.). I’m with Dan above in that ideally health care wouldn’t be tied to your job at all!

    1. Just a Reader*

      Do they require this to get a discount on health insurance or some other benefit? Or do they straight up just require it? Talk about invasive.

  11. Ann O'Nemity*

    So much of this depends on what the program entails and its implementation. And what the company’s goals are.

    Our health insurance offers a discount on premiums if enough employees fill out an annual wellness survey. So yeah, participation in that literally does save us employees a little money. (Plus the survey is brief, and results are all anonymous.)

    My company also offers several wellness incentives. Things like gym memberships, free workout classes, wellness seminars, smoking cessation programs/aids, etc. All are voluntary. Upper management acknowledges that this is part of recruitment/retention strategies – not about saving money.

    1. Ann O'Nemity*

      I said “wellness survey,” but it’s really more of an assessment with individual feedback on areas and strategies for improvement.

    2. Xay*

      My employer’s health insurance is similar – in addition to filling out a wellness assessment, we also have get a certain number of wellness points through regularly scheduled preventative doctor’s visits and/or participating in online wellness activities through the health insurance wellness portal to get the premium discount. My employer also offers free gym membership or a partial gym reimbursement to the gym of your choice – but that program started before the health insurance wellness discount.

      The wellness program hasn’t really influenced my decisions – I started a weight loss program before they announced the insurance premium discount. I haven’t used the gym membership because the gym closest to me is inconvienient and the partial reimbursement for the gym I belong to isn’t worth it because of the additional paperwork burden (you have to keep fitness logs and provide the logs and billing invoices for a $30/month reimbursement.)

  12. Tagg*

    I can’t stand the “wellness” program at my place of employment. I work for the largest healthcare provider in my county, and our wellness program includes a biometric screening as well as fasting bloodwork that must be done in order to get a significant discount on our health insurance premiums.

    Furthermore, if you fall within their pre-determined numbers for BMI, blood pressure, and fasting glucose, you get additional bonus money. For the large majority of people who don’t fall into these meaningless magic numbers, you must jump through hoops and get a “wellness coach” to qualify for these further reductions.

    It’s demeaning, derogatory, discriminatory and demoralizing. I actually had someone last year tell me if I “exercised a bit, you could drop a few pounds.” The only person who has the right to tell me that is my family physician. They are the only person qualified to make judgments about my health, as they are the only ones who know my medical history.

    Sorry to rant, it just really bothers me that I have to go through this every year for a job I otherwise really enjoy.

    1. Stephanie*


      It’s demeaning, derogatory, discriminatory and demoralizing

      This could get them in hot water. It’s been show that some groups have higher-than-normal BMIs (blacks) and lower-than-normal BMIs (East Asians).

          1. WM*

            Well, and also – BMI is simply a ratio of height to weight. BMI doesn’t determine how “healthy” or “fit” someone is. It’s just math – and of course there are reference ranges that associate certain BMI ranges with health risks – but I wish that programs would link incentives with BMI.

    2. TeaBQ*

      We have something similar where I work. Participating in the wellness programs is supposedly voluntary, but depending on where you fall on things like BMI and the like you get repeated calls and mail from the ins. company asking why you’re not participating. I throw them out and let the calls go to voicemail, but it’s such an annoyance. There’s no option to tell them to stop contacting you.

      Also I have health issues and already work with my GP and two specialists to take care of them. I’m not going to drop everything to take advice from some random person on the phone who’s never met me and whose medical background may be a Getty Images picture of a doctor hanging on the wall of the call center they work out of. Call me crazy.

      1. Jessa*

        Great and if you have an eating disorder where these kind of calls/reminders can put you out of remission? I know people who have doctors who have to be very careful (not telling their weight, etc.) because hearing for instance that they’re up 10 lbs to nearer to a healthy weight can cause them to relapse and get back to dangerous eating habits.

        I would make it very clear to the company that manages this that opting out is opting OUT and they better stop calling people because this kind of thing is dangerous.

        Also how do they know your doctor hasn’t already said this advice is bad for you.

        1. Tagg*

          Exactly! A few months ago I saw my doctor and was diagnosed with an eating disorder (not one of the big two, but not uncommon nonetheless) that upon reflection I’ve probably had all my life. This year I got serious anxiety when it came time to do the stupid biometric screenings and it caused my disorder to flare up – how is that helping to keep your employees healthy? Ugh.

        2. TeaBQ*

          Exactly! Yet another reason why I hate that these programs are put under the umbrella of “wellness” and “we’re doing this because we want you to be healthy!” If all an employer wants to care about is BMI and whether or not an employee smokes, great, but don’t say that doing so is part of making sure all employees live as healthfully as they can.

    3. Jessa*

      And if you can’t? If your BMI is due to disabilities that prevent meaningful exercise? These programmes usually have disabled people jumping through extra meaningless expensive hoops. AND require them to share personal medical details with people that are NOT their doctors. Because they’re supposed to be for your health even if you’re as healthy as your doctor can get you, you can’t get a reasonable accommodation, and a lot of programmes do not pay for the kind of special services you would need to get to their goal numbers, so you never get the bonus and they try to raise your rates.

    4. Kerry*

      Furthermore, if you fall within their pre-determined numbers for BMI, blood pressure, and fasting glucose, you get additional bonus money.

      HOLY CRAP.

      1. Judy*

        As I said above, we switched to that this year. We’ve had “behavior related” bonus – money for annual exam, dental appointment, etc. This year we’re switching to “outcome related” health bonuses.

      2. Elaine*

        Yup. That’s invasive, and I know that I’d pass all those metrics. It’s not like we joined the military. :-\

    5. Anonymous*

      I’m sorry, Tagg that you’re so frustrated and upset by the program. I don’t mean to sound like a jerk – I really don’t. I’m truly curious, why do you feel like it’s so demeaning to be encouraged to be healthier? (I have an elevated BMI myself, so I’m not some aerobics instructor or something.) But is it really demoralizing to participate in a fasting blood draw? I would think demoralizing and demeaning would be to work really hard and be told after being praised that I suck, or something equivalent.

      I guess I just don’t understand why some folks are so bothered by these programs. Will you share with me? Again, I really am not trying to sound like an aerobics instructor hopped up on green tea and kale. I just have never been bothered by it, so I’d like to know more about those who are bothered by it so much, and why. TIA!

      1. RedSonja*

        I can’t speak for Tagg, but when *I* have been told things like that, it’s usually BEFORE anyone has asked what sort of exercise I *actually* perform. The assumption is that because I’m fat, I’m also sedentary, eat poorly, and don’t know any better.

        As it happens, I volunteer at the zoo shoveling poop, lugging around hay bales, and toting grain and water buckets; telling me to “just get some exercise” is insulting. I eat mostly homecooked, ideally organic; lecturing me about “eating less fast food” assumes that I’m too stupid to understand the messages I get EVERYWHERE around me.

        On top of all of this, my blood pressure and blood work are spectacular. So there’s little they can actually point to as an advantage of me dieting other than triggering my eating disorder. Which they don’t know anything about, because they can’t be arsed to ask about my history.

      2. ArtsNerd*

        I’m truly curious, why do you feel like it’s so demeaning to be encouraged to be healthier?

        Also not Tagg, obviously, but what bugs me about this is that “healthier” can vary WILDLY from person to person, and these programs don’t allow for necessary personalization.

        I don’t eat enough, and I accidentally lose weight when I get stressed out. This is VERY unhealthy, yet most of these programs fixate on weight loss as being a desirable outcome. Also as Tagg, Jessa & RedSonja mentioned, that can be a trigger for eating disorders. Similarly, some people have personal, private medical reasons for being overweight (steroid usage to treat arthritis comes to mind). Or mobility issues that require considered and careful exercise plans.

        If you read Alison’s advice on team-building and parties, you’ll see a theme: cookies don’t make up for a bad boss. If you want to motivate your team, you need to be a good boss.

        A similar dynamic is in play here: instead of drawing blood to encourage wellness, create a “well” workplace that encourages healthy eating in an a natural way (food options on-site, kitchen space for workers to bring food from home, etc.), that allows for a work-life balance, etc.

        1. Paige Turner*

          “I don’t eat enough, and I accidentally lose weight when I get stressed out.”

          I have the same issue, and I’ve actually never heard anyone else mention it- I find that it’s hard to discuss without sounding it like a “humble-brag*” or something. I’m currently job searching so I don’t currently have to deal with a wellness program, but I agree that these programs seem bad because 1) they often don’t work for various reasons and 2) it doesn’t seem right for workplaces to penalize people for health issues unrelated to work and often out of an individual’s control.

          *Not suggesting that you are humble-bragging here…thanks for being willing to bring it up and indirectly reminding me to go cook dinner!

      3. TeaBQ*

        There’s also the assumption that my work and/or some random insurance person on the phone knows more about my health than I do. It’d be one thing if, for example, work was just trying to encourage people to go for their yearly physicals, then leaving it up to the employee’s doctors to determine what they need. Quite another when it’s nothing but “Lose weight! Stop smoking!” as though everyone in the office somehow thought cigarettes had vitamin C in them.

        Also there are those who have a lot of issues with their weight, and being forced to be weighed in any context. One woman where I work gets so anxious about anyone seeing her weight that she refuses to go to a doctor at all unless it’s an emergency. This isn’t a person who is helped by a so-called wellness program that only adds to her feelings of guilt for being an adult who weighs more than 100 pounds.

      4. Stephanie*

        I can’t speak for Tagg either, but I find them patronizing and ineffectual:
        1. The company’s not doing this out a sense of altruism, it’s doing it to lower its insurance costs.
        2. The changes/programs implemented tend to just pay lip service to healthy lifestyles. Actually effective changes (discouraging lots of overtime, allowing flexibility at work for workouts/breaks/etc., buying standing desks, subsidizing healthy lunch options) cut into a company’s bottom line too much and usually won’t be implemented. Instead, you get a salad recipe in your email.
        3. I’m overweight myself and it I don’t need any reminders at work as well that I need to lose weight. I’m well aware of this. Plus, there are about eleventy billion other sources where I could find this information aside from my office if I wanted to.
        4. They seem to be a bit too one-size-fits-all and simplistic.
        5. Privacy concerns.

        Just in their current incarnation, a lot of wellness plans are crappy. Companies need to work on making the work environment healthier such that it encourages wellness (and focus on their primary business).

      5. Mena*

        If you don’t want to participate then you don’t get the discount. That is easy. I’ll take the discount, especially since I ‘cost’ the insurance company less than others.

        1. Editor*

          I participate in health insurance because it is a risk pool. These kinds of discounts say, “We’re not all in it together.” To you, that might mean you should be rewarded for being able to stay healthy. At one of my previous employers, it meant that the people with MS at the office were suddenly excluded from drug coverage after a certain amount annually after years of being covered.

          Basically, my employer didn’t want to pay for expensive ailments any more, so they redesigned the insurance so it was underwritten and some costs out of the control of the sick person were borne by the sick person. MS is expensive, and I was deeply offended by this decision.

          If you think MS should be covered, then accept that other problems, including high blood pressure and added pounds, will also be covered. You’re in a risk pool. While you are healthy, you pay more to cover those who aren’t as healthy, but if something awful happens to you (and the person I knew who learned they had MS had been apparently healthy), then others will help carry the burden. This is why large risk pools with healthy and unhealthy people alike are fairest over the lifetimes of many insured people.

          1. Anonymous*

            It is a hared risk pool. Which is why it is in everybody’s best interest to push the others in the pool to be as healthy as possible.

            1. VintageLydia*

              Eating salads and going to yoga a few times a week isn’t going to help someone with MS, though, and people with chronic illnesses are overall more harmed by these programs. Many cannot take advantage of the incentives because they will literally have to do the opposite their doctor advice to receive the discount. Did you ever see that episode of The Office where they all had to lose weight to get a prize? Angela was under doctor’s orders to *gain* weight at the time, but the contest didn’t allow for individualized medical advice. You can say “well that’s just a TV show” but my MIL had the same problem at her office. She was already fairly slim but they were doing Biggest Loser and was expected to lose weight just like everyone else. Her meals were tiny and she was hungry all the time.

              Give employees discounts for having yearly physicals and other preventive care, sure, but let actual medical professionals give the health advice. Not everyone needs to lose weight. Medications for certain chronic illnesses actually make people gain a lot of weight. They shouldn’t be shamed in the office because the weight gain will cost the insurance company a hell of a lot less than untreated lupus will.

        2. Callie*

          Maybe you do and maybe you don’t. I am “overweight” but my blood pressure is on the low side of normal and my cholesterol is good. The only health issues I go to the doctor for have NOTHING to do with my weight. My ~fatness costs my insurer nothing.

      6. Ellie H.*

        I look like a fit, healthy person (and honestly, I probably am relatively fit too) so but I also find this kind of thing invasive, demeaning, patronizing etc. It’s just not their business. Everyone deserves health care and in the current US system you generally get it through work. Beyond that, what you do with it should be your business.

        1. Ellie H.*

          Got cut off – I mean to say “so I doubt that I would be likely to be insultingly marketed to about such programs but I also . . .”

      7. Rana*

        I find such programs worrisome because they’re both invasive – one should be able to keep personal details private without penalty – and because, as others have said, they rarely take individual situations into account. So you end up reinforcing the existing privilege of people with good genetics and the ability to pursue a “healthy” lifestyle at the expense of people who have disabilities, genetic predispositions towards “unhealthy” conditions,* lack of leisure time, lack of funds for gym memberships, etc.

        *To give my own example, in my family high cholesterol is common. It is genetically determined, and doesn’t respond well to the usual mantra of diet and exercise (lowering stress does help, but, ironically, a program like this would contribute to it). It requires expensive drugs with a number of side effects, drugs that I had to stop taking in order to get pregnant, stay pregnant, and, now, feed my baby safely. So if the biometric included “reduce cholesterol” as a requirement, it would require a lot more effort and sacrifice for me to meet that requirement than it would someone who has better genetics and isn’t breastfeeding.

        I can easily imagine this being the case for a number of other conditions too.

        1. Rana*

          To add on to my comment about privacy – let’s say I was in one of these programs at the time I was trying to get pregnant. I’d be off my statins, my cholesterol would go up, and, presumably, I’d get flagged as “slacking” or “failing” health-wise, when, in fact, it would have been dangerous for me and my fetus to stay on them. And then I’d be in the position of having to explain what was going on, even if I didn’t want to share my fertility plans, or face a financial penalty, assuming that pregnancy even counts as an excuse under one of these programs.

          And that’s for something that’s pretty common; imagine if you had a less common disorder to manage.

          1. Anonymous*

            Thanks everyone who explained why the feelings Tagg expressed are shared by others. Admittedly, I truly hadn’t considered how a person with an ED would be affected by a worksite weight loss program, and so on.

            I appreciate everyone being willing to enlighten me and do so kindly, it has really opened my eyes to your concerns, which are very valid. Thank you all for sharing! Green tea and kale for everyone. (Kidding… French fries.)

      8. Callie*

        I find it irritating because my health issues are between my doctor and me. My health insurance is part of my compensation and I shouldn’t have to jump through invasive hoops (that sometimes contradict my doctor’s orders) to get it.

    6. Anonymous*


      My company’s wellness program is very similar and annoys me to no end. I work out several times a week and have always been active. I eat relatively healthy. However, I have a thyroid condition that makes it difficult to lose weight/lower cholesterol, etc. So, according to the parameters they’ve established, I’ll never be eligible for bonus money.

      If I could opt out of our program/insurance, I totally would. Unfortunately, I’m single so that’s not really an option.

  13. Jax*

    My office is BIGGEST LOSER! headquarters. The scale is in here, so many times per day co-workers wander back here to weigh themselves on “the official” scale. I have no idea why I got stuck housing the scale (semi-private office?!?) but I’m ready to throw it.

    I’d love to put a sign on my door that says, “PLEASE WEIGH YOURSELF ONCE PER WEEK. REPEAT OFFENDERS WHO WANT TO KNOW HOW MUCH LUNCH OR BATHROOM BREAKS EFFECT THE SCALE WILL BE SHOT ON SITE.” And no, I don’t want to chit chat about weight loss tricks. I’m working. Just get out.

    Whew. I feel better.

    1. Adam*

      Wow. Couldn’t you put it in the office restroom or something? That seems awfully public for something many find so personal.

      1. Jamie*

        I agree. And besides everyone knows you’re supposed to weigh yourself naked. And spit out your gum. A currently being chewed piece of gum can account for 10 lbs (in my mind).

        Jax – my heart goes out to you and in a perfect world your proposed sign would be absolutely reasonable.

    2. BadPlanning*

      You could put a big bowl of tasty chocolates by the scale. That might deter people from coming a lot. Or for someone to suggest relocating the scale.

      Or it could increase traffic to your office. Hard to say, really.

    3. Rebecca*

      My office does this too, but the scales are in the ladies room. And no, I don’t participate. I’m a survivor of being the big girl in gym class in high school, and no way under the sun am I getting on the scales in front of a coworker, especially the stick thin one that runs that thing.

      1. Jax*

        The thin ones have no problem broadcasting their weight: “138! Oh no! I should be at 125!” but they are also the ones running back here to measure post-lunch binges. It’s very bizarre, and I half wonder if it’s triggering old eating disorder issues. I’m starting to feel like the chubby friend who has to reassure the rest of the clique that they are all pretty.

        We’re all adults. Why are we doing this?!?

        1. KJR*

          Oddly enough it’s the guys who work here that participate in their own weight loss contest. It’s ridiculous, because they all gain and lose the same 30 lbs every time!! What is the point I ask you??

        2. Rana*

          I fall in that weight range, but that just sounds horrid to me, too. I weigh what I weigh, and couldn’t care less about what other people weigh; it’s not like it’s a measure of virtue or something.

      2. Xay*

        My office does a group weight loss challenge but fortunately our group is low key and sane – we even changed weigh ins from Mondays to Fridays to reduce weekend stress. The work Weight Watchers group is more like what you described – I barely made it through one meeting.

  14. De Minimis*

    We’ve done a wellness competition at our workplace….but it’s only for a month or two, and only some employees choose to get involved.

    The stuff I’ve seen that I’ve found effective are the incentives where your healthcare provider gives you gift cards for getting an exam, doing coaching sessions, etc. The employer isn’t directly involved.

    1. annie*

      The problem I always see with this is that it’s not localized, so it doesn’t really come out to be much of an incentive. For example I think my insurance company offers a 25% discount on health club memberships, but its only to one chain, and there are not a lot of locations of that chain on the side of the city where I live. Plus, that chain is much more expensive than what I pay at my little local gym, even if I got the 25% off incentive. In the back of my mind, I always wonder if this is really just a scheme where the insurance company gets a kickback from the gym for getting new members to sign up.

  15. Adam*

    I’m always skeptical of “wellness programs” since the human factor will always make or break such things, but a reduction of $136 bucks per month ($1632 annually) on an individual level seems like something good may be coming from it.

      1. Jessa*

        This. The key is that some people who learn to manage chronic conditions have less dangerous side effects – for example a diabetic who finally gets their sugar under control will be less likely to have a sugar drop or spike that ends them in the ER. Same for the newly controlled asthmatic. That’s where the savings are.

      2. Adam*

        I know for people with ongoing conditions $1-2 grand can be a drop in an unfortunately large bucket, but I’ve always figured any positive progress was worth it I suppose.

  16. TeaBQ*

    You have NO IDEA how much this news makes me want to shout with smug joy. When my employer rolled out its wellness program a few years ago I pointed out to them that it, combined with the new way our insurance was being handled, in no way actually promoted employee wellness. Reason being because it either ignored employees with chronic illnesses (the wellness program) or implicitly discouraged them from going to their doctors for maintenance of their health problems (the insurance).

    Validation is sweet. Now if only employers would listen.

    1. Andrea*

      I have a chronic condition. My crappy insurance does indeed discourage me from seeing my doctor as often as I should, and as a result, my health (as it related to this condition) is not well-maintained, because I really can’t afford to deal with it. It’s just a vicious circle.

      1. TeaBQ*

        The trade-off I made is that I go for the blood tests et al. I need to try to maintain my health and the medication I take, but I’m that much more reluctant to go in for other issues unless I’m certain I’m *really* sick.

        I’m also single with no kids so at least the only person affected is me. There are others who basically have to go in for themselves *or* their children. Even worse for those where they or the kids have a chronic illness.

  17. Stephanie*

    Will this make any difference? Probably not.

    I get companies do want to lower costs, but these always just come across as paternalistic. Most people’s issue isn’t that they can’t find a salmon recipe or need to be told that eating at Arby’s daily is unhealthy.

    It’s usually cultural things that are a lot harder to fix. Better wellness is achieved with things like having enough headcount so people aren’t working late all the time (and can actually head home and cook that salmon recipe), allowing flexibility to go workout during the day or take an actual lunch break, not stocking the break room with junk, etc.

    1. PoohBear McGriddles*

      Ah, yes, the break room. Vending machines stocked with all kinds of high-calorie goodies (that the company is making money off, no doubt) – right next to the healthy living motivational posters.

      1. Stephanie*

        I had a job that had those granola bars that are basically a Pay Day (the sweet and salty ones) in a giant bowl. And then I wondered why I gained 20 lbs my first six months there…

      2. Elizabeth West*

        I want one of those vintage carousel things with sandwiches and fruit. I can’t even keep stuff, because they clean out the fridges so often. So I just bring my lunch, and keep vegan tomato cup-o-soup in my cube cubby. (Not a vegan, but it’s really good–Dr. McDougall’s Tomato Basil with little noodles! Yay for the hippie store!)

  18. ray*

    Our department gets casual friday only if enough people report having walked x number of miles to reach the organizational goal for the week. Oddly, we make the goal every week.

    1. Harriet*

      “What do you mean, we’re 450 miles short and it’s 3 pm on a Thursday? I walked 500 miles to work this morning!”

  19. Katie the Fed*

    I really support having bowls of fruit instead of candy out though. Small thing but it’s nice for those of us who want to make smart decisions.

    1. Editor*

      Then you get into the cold fruit vs. warm fruit divide. Sure, bananas should stay out of the refrigerator and in the fruit bowl. But I like a firm, crisp apple, and there is no way apples should be stored at room temperature for maximum quality. I don’t want to eat a mealy, warm apple with little dents showing every supplier has slung that bag on a hard surface without caring about bruises.

      There are other fruits I prefer cold, too — I leave oranges out until they’re ripe and then tuck them in the fridge. I prefer cold grapes and cold pineapple. And so on.

      I married into a warm fruit family. At reunions, they will leave apples, grapes, ripe nectarines, and ripe raspberries and cherries out in bowls on the table for three days straight. I cringe, but don’t interfere any more.

      It’s as wide a divide as the cold food vs. hot food divide. Oddly enough, I’m on the other side of that one. I will not eat cold pizza or cold lasagne or cold Chinese or Thai.

      1. Victoria Nonprofit*

        Nothing about this is odd, Editor. You clearly just prefer food at the correct temperature.

        In solidarity,

        Oranges Are Cold and Pizza Is Hot, What’s So Hard About That?

  20. VictoriaHR*

    I’m participating in my workplace’s wellness program but I am on a diet/exercise plan anyway, so I might as well win some gift cards because of it.

  21. Mike C.*

    My favorite part is the fact that many companies with wellness programs have no problems with regular overtime. Maybe folks would exercise more if they weren’t working!

    1. Stephanie*

      Ha, right?

      “Well, I ordered a pizza for dinner/skipped yoga post-work since I had to stay until 8 pm because we don’t have enough staff/you promised the client a crazy project timetable…”

  22. Sparrow*

    We are on my husband’s insurance. They deposit money into our HSA if we complete an online health survey and a biometric screening / physical.

    Prior to this, we had never gone to the doctor for yearly screenings. When we first did, it was an eye opener for us to actually see our cholesteral levels, etc. That was a kick start for us to start eating more healthy and start exercising. Since then my husband has lost 30lbs and has done an overall lifestyle change to be more healthy.

    But other than that, there’s really no other parts of the wellness program that we use.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      My company has the bloodmobile come regularly, so I get to see mine when I do that. It definitely keeps me aware of it–plus I like donating blood because it’s a good thing to do. :D

    2. KLH*

      Sparrow, do you feel like you are being aculturated into a new relationship or world of healthcare? I ask because one of the things I notice is that people have very different ideas/feelings/motivations for seeking medical care or not. Personally, I am somewhat notorious for feeling certain things will sort themselves out (gallbladder attacks, mysterious lumps on my head Dr. Google says might be an infected lymph node, aches and pains) and never go to the doctor, but others goto doctors/chiropractors/acupuncture all the time. I just find it interesting how notions of health and relationships with bodies and doctors play out.

  23. Anonymous*

    I really wish it was illegal for anyone to report anything about someone’s health even in aggregate especially an employer. Things like: sending out emails telling how many people in what department quit smoking, lost weight, have a gym membership and how many filled out a form that includes things like fasting glucose, cholesterol and the like. I can see in so many ways this could be used in ways to discriminate against certain classes of people, without that being the intention of those programs.

    At my workplace you can fill out a form yearly to get a (very minor) discount and enroll in the wellness program. Then yearly they publish the results of what departments had the highest participation. The result is that the departments that have more highly paid people with more time off and more regular schedules are more likely to do those things, and the departments with the hourly and part-time people are the least likely to do so. And those departments where the people are least likely to fill them out have the least amount of money and free time but could use that discount more, and are more likely to be female and/or minority and/or over 40.

    1. Joey*

      I can’t help but think this is anecdotal because highly paid people generally work longer hours not less.

      1. Anonymous*

        Actually I’d say working poor works the most, as they often have 2-3 jobs at a minimum, and often don’t have the time to do these types of things.

  24. Joey*

    The solution is pretty simple. If employers contributed a flat amount instead of a percentage of cost they wouldn’t have so much riding on the health of employees. Although that would mean employees would bear the brunt of the costs associated with the choices that affect their health. Either that and/or transitioning to high deductible plans that compel employees to take a more active role in managing their health costs.

  25. vdubs*

    Not related to employee wellness programs, but I just got a letter from my health insurance company saying that they are ending coverage in 2014… I doubt the small business I work for will be able to afford it elsewhere. Good thing I am interviewing elsewhere…

  26. MR*

    Not much a surprise, but I don’t see these programs going anywhere anytime soon. At least not until some other buzzword-worthy type program comes along.

    That being said, it’s not bad for employees to be prevented with this type of information. Stick it on a wall or give employees the information in their yearly health care information or something like that.

    If people want to treat their bodies like crap and end up dead at 55 or 60, then that is their prerogative. Give people the information and let them decide what to do with that information.

    1. Editor*

      Some people treat their bodies responsibly, follow the doctor’s directions, exercise regularly, and still die early. My late husband died unexpectedly and early. He never made it to his 60th birthday because of a rare, undiagnosed and difficult-to-detect cancer that has no known lifestyle cause. I’ve also known people who died before their time from aneurysms and other causes unrelated to lifestyle.

      I hope you do not believe that people who die young are always irresponsible about their health.

      1. Callie*

        I work with someone who–she and her spouse–eat nothing but organic food made from scratch; she bikes to work every day and meditates/does yoga as did her spouse. No smoking and no drinking, no drugs. Early last year she had a stroke, and around the time she recovered and came back to work full time in the fall her husband had a heart attack and died. They made basically every possible healthy choice and completely lost the health outcomes roulette.

  27. Felicia*

    There are employee wellness programs here, but since this is Canada, where for the most part basic health care isn’t tied to your employer. Here you get a discount on dental , eye care and prescriptions which are the only things not covered by the government . I wonder how well it works here, but I’m imagining not well.

  28. webDev*

    I wish I could convince my employer (or my HMO) to offer a reduced rate at the local dominant gym chain. I’d take advantage of it!

    And though it matters not, my employer, by requiring everyone to enroll (even the younger employees and especially them) managed to reduce costs enough to cover all retirees. Group plans work!!

  29. Jake*

    Our wellness plan at Oldjob was a company match to our HSA and a $100 bonus to our HSA if we got a yearly check-up that they provided for free.

    Effective or not, it was a pretty awesome part of our compensation package. Then again, I’m sure that isn’t the type of wellness plan you are talking about in this post.

  30. OHCFO*

    My employer has a wellness target-based premium schedule. Employees (and spouses if covered on the plan) have to participate in the biometric screening and make progress toward the goals identified by the wellness vendor in order to receive a reduction in the employee share of the premiums. They have a medium tier for folks who participate but don’t meet the wellness targets, and then the base premium price for folks who don’t participate at all.

    While the exact ROI is impossible to quantify (because the long-term impact of staving off heart disease today is in reduced claims 20 years from now), the positive impact on our corporate culture is amazing. We have cultivated a supportive and innovative environment with frequent healthy foods potlucks, team and individual contests to keep people moving and maintaining and/or losing weight, and lunch-time walking/workout club that has logged thousands of miles.

    Especially in our sector, we have a very aggressive program, so I get that folks with a less aggressive program may not demonstrate the same outcomes.

    As the financial manager of my employer’s self-funded insurance pool, I am ok with not seeing a direct financial result. Because what I can’t see is how much higher would our current or future costs be without it.

  31. Green*

    RAND is good at what they do, but the study is pretty limited and the conclusions that can be drawn from it are likewise pretty limited (unlike your title). All it shows is that PepsiCo’s particular iteration of a wellness program had a smaller return on investment than disease management over a 7-year period. And on the cost measure alone, the data actually shows that the program DOES achieve a reduction in health care costs and absenteeism, just not the highest rate of return.

    I work for a company that has extremely low turnover and keeps people for 10, 15 or 20 years (with a pension plan to boot!). Because health problems related to wait gain manifest slowly over time, you won’t necessarily be able to see the cost reduction over a 7-year horizon, but may be able to see it over a 15-year horizon.

    And then there’s the potential externalities that aren’t accounted for: improved productivity, improved attitudes (and professionalism), improved mental health, improved job satisfaction, longer working life, group cohesiveness, lower turnover (and training/replacement costs), etc.

    And now I’m gonna spit some sunshine and rainbows and puppy dogs at you, but it’s true. I LOVE my corporate wellness program, and I am not the gung-ho exercise gal Friday. I am the 20 lbs. overweight, exercise asthmatic who huffs and puffs my way up the stairs. But where I work, the “lifestyle” program has become part of the corporate culture. People work out at lunch, or take an hour at 10 AM, to go down to the gym. People take time off when they need time off. Meetings break for 10 minutes so people can get up and walk around. The cafeteria has primo healthy foods and snacks (while preserving the burgers-and-fries choice). And employees leave early in the winter so you can get your run in before it gets dark. Managers are supportive of employees achieving their wellness goals, whatever those happen to be for the particular employee, and the wellness program is successful because it is integrated into the corporate culture. (And, that culture, in turn, attracts awesome people like me who are not happy being fat and stressed in their previous jobs.)

    1. Anon for this one*

      If my company wellness plan had those kinds of activities, I would favor them. Especially the break for exercise and walking around.

      One of my former employers had a wellness plan, and to get the $50 back from the premium every quarter, we had to get a blood test, weight and BMI reading the first quarter of the year, then participate in a number of different options, including a counseling for wellness call series at least one quarter.

      Participants could choose the counseling topic — heart disease, diabetes, general overweight, a couple other topics, and stress. I chose the counseling regarding stress. So, the first call, a chirpy woman who sounded young asks me if I have had any life events that cause stress. Yes, I say. She wants to know what they are.

      I tell her that four people in my family have died in eight months, including one of my parents and my spouse, both my kids were laid off after the businesses where they worked were sold and they may move back home, my office had a disaster and I’m working from temporary quarters with no private office needing documents that were destroyed or unavailable, and one of my employees was laid off, so as the only exempt person in the office, I’ve had to take on extra work after I had to rearrange everyone’s duties, and my employer hasn’t given me a raise in four years. I hear an umm, and some rustling, as though pages are being turned, and the not-so-chirpy voice says, well, have you tried deep breathing exercises? Let”s try them. Can you take a big, deep breath right now?

      Yes, indeed, I did take a big deep breath. But I don’t think she knew that it kept me from shrieking at her. I did vent some of the anger I had about life and work by griping about the stress-reduction program, though.

  32. Trillian*

    I’m going to die an early death because the word ‘wellness’ has all the warm, fuzzy appeal of fingernails scraped on a blackboard. Not the concept, but the word itself. It’s positively dystopian. What’s wrong with ‘health’, by Orwell!

    Having got that out of my system – one study is one study (although it’s nice to see a newspaper article that references other research). Alone, it doesn’t disprove or falsify anything, it simply adds to the body of evidence. What’s needed is a systematic review – a structured search for all studies that look at the question of whether workplace health promotion (I will not write that word!) is effective, and a summary of the aggregated evidence for each type of intervention. A quick Google Scholar search turned up one from 1999, with below it a systematic review of smoking cessation activities in the workplace. It’s likely there’s a huge body of evidence already, although I expect that many of the studies would not be considered high quality – because they’re the type of study difficult to do rigorously – and there will be a lot of variation from study to study in key aspects of the people tested, the type of intervention, the outcome measures – which makes summary difficult. But there probably is evidence in favour of certain interventions.

  33. anon-2*

    My wife and I have to go through the wellness program , otherwise we don’t get a $5o/month credit. So I put up with it.

    On the other hand, I tend to think that having to go through coaching, biometrics, “gee whiz don’t smoke and you should eat healthier” doesn’t HURT anyone ….

    I used to joke about how my mother – when I was eight years old – once jammed me and my sister into the gospel tent at a county fair, while she went off and had a cup of coffee. When we came out, we complained “yuh, the puppet show was boring and the free gift was a bunch of Bible pamplets”…. my darling mother’s response =

    “Well, it didn’t hurt you now, did it?” So I can put up with it. Perhaps I am getting something good out of it.

  34. Hugo*

    These “wellness programs” started popping up as companies began to slash and burn real employee benefits like affordable health care and paid sick time. These are faux benefits designed to make it look like the company actually cares about its employees. It’s funny, because these programs are usually most prominent in large corporations, who themselves hate being “regulated” by the government, yet they feel the need to impose wellness mandates upon their workers. Thanks, GE – I didn’t know what a vegetable was! Thanks, Wal-Mart – now I understand that exercise will help me lose weight! What a joke.

  35. Poe*

    My company has a few nice perks:
    1. You can buy a one year bus pass at substantial savings through work and they will pay the up-front (which gives you a 20% discount over monthly payments) and deduct 1/12 of the cost from each paycheque over the year. We have great (but expensive) public transit, and I think public transit IS a wellness initiative.
    2. You can buy a bike (with some paperwork attached for the bike shop) and work will pay for it up front and deduct 1/12 of the cost each monthly cheque over the year, 0% bike loan!.
    3. Discounts at several of the gyms in town just for showing your ID card.
    None of this is tracked, none of it affects benefits, it is just there if you want it. I like that hands-off approach.

    1. Ellie H.*

      That’s great – that strikes me as an incredibly good way to promote health and wellness (and of course, public transit too!) These are all very tangible, actually useful and they don’t involve collecting any information about the employees.

  36. Intrigued*

    My job (govt) started a wellness program. Get a physical, do a government sponsored 5k, and attend every monthly brown bag lunch lecture and at the end of 2013 we would get $100 on our paycheck. PASS. Every lunch lecture? I have no time for that.

  37. Liane*

    Very good comments, some of them things I’d not thought about, such as the effect some of these programs could have on people with eating disorders.
    Was also glad that I’m not the only one who hates those Healthy To-Do Lists mailings/emails, which so often aren’t tailored to the recipients, even when they try. Like our mutual CurrentJob’s** minor obsession with its Smoking Cessation program. It’s great they have posters touting it, it sounds helpful. But why are they spending postage (& paper) mailing me & my husband repeatedly about it? They know neither of us smokes since we answer this during enrollment due to a premium difference.

    But the best part of this thread for me? I’ve decided that I am recovered enough from my bad Christmas-early January cold to get back to 2 of my favorite exercises–Bicycling with my iPad (Don’t worry–it’s the stationary bike in our apt. complex gym!) & walking with my teenage son.

    *Yes, we now work at the same place, but different hours. (Might post about this in the next Open Thread)

  38. Andy Core*

    Seems like the lifestyle program could have had better results if it provided a place to exercise at the workplace or a reduced gym membership rather than a course that lectured employees to do things they already know they should do. The how is always more helpful then the why. Providing employees with the incentive to exercise has shown to increase work-life balance and motivation in the workplace. The benefit would still work, but the method needs to change.

  39. Mina*

    It’s very interesting to see some research on this. My workplace tries to get people to participate in their wellness program using cash. Their is little quality control in the classes and services they offer. After your biometric screening they have you sit down with a nutritional counselor. The lady I spoke with lectured me about how being a vegetarian was going to cause my triglycerides to be too high, or something. It felt really, really weird to be getting this kind of advice at work from somebody I barely know and whose credentials were questionable. I just didn’t see how it was helpful and as a researcher I’ve been so curious to know whether participation makes any difference (aside from self-selection).

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