Workforce Wellness Programs: Are They Focused on the Wrong Thing?

By | June 21, 2021

Recently, there has been an ongoing debate over the value of workplace wellness programs. It is logical to think that to improve a person’s health, you can provide them with support services such as weight management and disease intervention plans through their worksite and ultimately their health will improve, and costs will decrease for both the employee and employer.

Unfortunately, the data to date has been mixed, and showing little benefit when studied for shorter periods. And even after following data for three years post-intervention, a recent study in Health Affairs by Song et al. didn’t show measurable improvements in health spending or outcomes. One difference however, in the study, was that the participants did report better self-reported health behaviors.

Once again, as is common in healthcare there lies a dilemma; despite implementing an intervention that appears sensible, including the participants changing their behavior by their own accord for at least three years, unfortunately the outcome indicated no real measurable benefit.

Strong supporters who believe that the hypothesis is correct regardless of the data, will argue the study design did not demonstrate a benefit due to multiple factors such as length of study, sample size, selection bias, etc. In that case, they will make themselves feel better and continue to promote workplace wellness programs. However, we must step back and seriously question the value we are bringing by focusing on such matters.

For instance, we might consider shifting our focus to other health issues, such as the best methods for caring for our elderly family members. And maybe we concentrate on how we address health equities in a manner that delivers care to more people? In truth, we are a country of problem fixers versus concentrating on our fundamental issues. And anyone who has dealt with a family member at the end of their life knows we struggle in providing the care and services needed as aging occurs. Additionally, COVID has shown us the vast disparities that occur within our present access model.

We only have so much energy, brainpower, and investment dollars. If we harnessed all the time and dollars spent on wellness programs that continue to show mixed results and instead, invested in health equity issues and caring for Mom and Dad when they age, which is more beneficial? One might argue that I will not have these issues later in life if I keep them healthy by all these innovative interventions. But this is simply not true. No matter what we do, we cannot prevent the aging process, our aging population will require support services at some point.

My point is, we are so focused on trying to reverse a disease process, that we can lose sight of what is genuinely needed; supportive care when one is most vulnerable. These activities during the aging process impact not only the person but also their families as well as health equity matters that impact entire communities.

Considering all of this, maybe the best workplace wellness program would be to offer support to employees aging family members and those suffering from health equity issues. It would mean better support for some of our most vulnerable.