Do Workplace Wellness Programs Really Work?

Not always. But there are practical steps managers can take to motivate their employees to participate and reap their value.

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Corporate wellness programs are a lot like New Year’s resolutions. While announced with the best of intentions, they don’t lead to enough real action — let alone the kinds of transformations they’re designed to bring.

Just as numerous reports bemoan the way our personal resolutions quickly fall to the wayside, analyses of corporate wellness programs bring similarly dispiriting news. “The most credible research,” Fortune reports, “suggests mixed, if not ambiguous, results.”

A 2018 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that spending on corporate wellness programs has tripled to $8 billion since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and today 50 million workers have access to them. These programs promise all sorts of economic benefits, such as reduced medical spending and absenteeism, and increased employee productivity and satisfaction. But the researchers found that the people who chose to take part in such a program already had lower medical expenditures and healthier behaviors. The study did not find causal effects “of treatment on total medical expenditures, health behaviors, employee productivity, or self-reported health status” in the first year of most programs.

Through my work founding and growing companies, I’ve discovered ways to make wellness a corporate value that leads to concrete changes and positive results. Managers play a crucial role in making this happen by working with their reports to change workplace habits and boost participation in all health-related activities a company offers.

Get your employees to take vacation. Americans’ stress levels are on the rise. A report by the American Psychological Association in 2017 found the country “at its highest stress level yet.” As Rice University professor Akane Sano cited in research published while at the MIT Media Lab, 83% of Americans are stressed at work, which reduces productivity, can lead to insomnia, and increases absenteeism in the workplace.

People need vacations to rejuvenate. But the majority of employees don’t use all their paid time off. In its State of American Vacation 2018 report, “Project: Time Off” found that 52% of employees have unused vacation days at the end of the year — a figure that’s been dropping slightly in recent years, but remains far too high. A whopping 705 million vacation days went unused in the most recent year surveyed.

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