Do Corporate Health Initiatives Work?

By McKenzie Schwark
Workplace Wellness

In order to address employee health concerns, many workplaces implement some kind of wellness program. Physical and mental health in the workplace have been major topics the last few years, and they are important things for managers to address. But evidence suggests that traditional workplace wellness programs may not be the way to go.

Wellness programs are meant to improve employee health by encouraging good habits like daily movement and healthy eating and by discouraging unhealthy habits like smoking and consuming alcohol. This is supposed to help companies cut down on health care costs and improve participants’ work performance.

A Harvard study found that those programs don’t exactly yield the results they promise.

“Employees working at sites offering the program did not have better clinical measures of health such as body mass index, blood pressure, or cholesterol after 18 months, nor did they exhibit lower absenteeism, better job performance or lower health care use or spending,” the study found.

Chronic stress, fatigue, and burnout are all taking a toll on employees. One fifth of adults in the U.S. suffer from mental health challenges. This results in an average of 200 million lost work days and nearly $200 billion in cost. These issues aren’t directly addressed by most workplace wellness programs. Of course, while getting more movement and quitting bad habits like smoking or alcohol can positively affect employee mental health, the issues run deeper and need more robust solutions – and there are ways employers can address employee mental health.

“Our findings show that health behaviors can respond to a workplace wellness program, but they also temper expectations of realizing large returns on investment in the short term,” said study author Zirui Song, assistant professor of health care policy and medicine in the Department of Health Care Policy at the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School.

On top of more traditional wellness programs, many companies now also offer perks like in-house yoga classes or kombucha on tap. But those shiny perks don’t always help employees feel they are getting the support they need from the workplace. Since the COVID-19 pandemic pushed many out of the office and shifted many workers’ priorities, a lot of conversation has been had surrounding how to better support employees’ mental and physical health. Flexible work schedules, paid time off, and options to work from home are among some of the needs employees have expressed over the last few years.

It seems workplace wellness programs may not be the right solution to employee health concerns. For most of us, the majority of our weeks are spent at work. In order to live healthier lives both in and out of the office, businesses need to take the physical and mental health of their employees seriously and offer the kinds of wellness programs and health benefits employees really need.