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When Workplace Wellness Programs Work: Lessons Learned from a Large Employer in Texas 

Ohbet Cheon, George Naufal, and Bita A. Kash

ajhe cover January 2020

Workplace wellness programs have been widely implemented to promote employee health in recent decades. Since most full-time employees in the United States spend more than one-third of their days at work, the workplace is viewed as an ideal setting to provide easy and regular access to positive peer and organizational supports toward wellness. As costs of insurance premiums and employee compensation claims continue to rise, employers are also more likely to institute workplace wellness programs to cut down these costs. .In the United States, about 4 of 5 large employers provided at least one wellness program at the workplace in 2018. This phenomenon also has been encouraged by public policy, state regulation, and global organizations. The Affordable Care Act has established workplace wellness programs among the national public health strategies to reduce chronic disease in the US,and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have published guidelines for implementing wellness programs in the workplace.

Despite the widespread implementation of wellness programs, study results of their effect on employees’ health outcomes are quite mixed. Some research has supported workplace wellness programs as effective in weight loss, smoking cessation, mental health, and health risk management (e.g., glucose tolerance, blood pressure (BP), or cholesterol), while other studies found minimal or non-significant effects on health outcomes. Several systematic reviews highlighted these mixed results and contended that more rigorous evaluation designs are required to reliably determine the effectiveness of workplace wellness programs. Other studies also indicated that the effect size can vary depending on how the outcomes are evaluated; therefore, several methodologies should be tested in the analytical approach to increase validity.

In addition, existing studies have focused the effectiveness of wellness programs regarding monetary incentive structure,participation rates,or financial outcomes, yet have rarely covered how their effectiveness differs depending on the design of programs. Designing programs with appropriate topics, goals, intensity, and impacts is not only important for recruiting target employees, but also for optimizing cost and effectiveness. Particularly from the perspective of practitioners, it is also important to know programmatic elements of the successful wellness program by comparing its effectiveness with other programs. Although a few studies have introduced useful tools and strategies of operating workplace wellness programs, including personalized counseling, skill development, online training, and fostering a partnership with communities, these studies did not compare the impact of such diverse programs on health outcomes within the same workplace, therefore leaving the question of comparative effectiveness unanswered.

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