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    According to a recent report sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, over 80% of companies in the US with over fifty employees offer some sort of corporate wellness benefit.

    The latest Aflac WorkForces Report (conducted in 2015) found that close to half of the 1,977 business decision makers surveyed said their companies sponsored workplace wellness programs.  That was up from just 30 percent in 2012.

    In fact, ever since Johnson & Johnson’s groundbreaking Live for Life program launched in 1979, employers have been offering their employees on-site access to fitness centers and behavioral modification programs designed to help employees quit smoking, reduce stress, lose weight and, in general, live a healthier life.

    Do wellness programs work?

    Despite the remarkable proliferation of corporate wellness programs, there is still debate over whether they actually work.  Workplace wellness programs are an $8 billion industry in the US.  With that kind of money on the table, you can be sure there are a lot people with vested interests pushing the affirmative side of that debate.

    Employers think their corporate wellness programs are effective. Per the Aflac WorkForces Report, 53 percent of employers that offer wellness believe their program is effective. That’s up 7 points from prior year.

    Various studies over the years have provided conflicting results, with some showing savings and health improvements while others say the efforts fall short.  Many studies, however, faced a number of limitations, such as failing to have a comparison group, or figuring out whether people who sign up for such wellness programs are somehow healthier or more motivated than those who do not.

    Harvard Business School reported that medical expenses for American based companies fell by $3.27 for every dollar spent on wellness programs.  Furthermore, employee absenteeism expenses fell by $2.73.

    A recent study by German psychologist Sabine Sonnentag and reported in Forbes showed wellness programs boosted productivity, reduced stress, and increased employee engagement and communication.

    Not all studies agree

    However, a more recent, well-publicized study by University of Chicago and Harvard Medical School arrived at a different conclusion.  This study was one of the first large-scale studies to be peer-reviewed and to employ a randomized controlled trial design.

    The researchers randomly assigned 20 BJ’s Wholesale Club outlets to offer a wellness program to all employees, then compared results with 140 stores that did not have a wellness program.

    As reported in JAMA, the study found that worksites with the wellness program had a higher rate of employee engagement in regular exercise and higher rate of employees who reported actively managing their weight.  However, there were no significant differences in other self-reported health and behaviors: clinical markers of health; health care spending or utilization; or absenteeism, tenure, or job performance after 18 months.

    “The optimistic interpretation is there is no way we can get improvements in health or more efficient spending if we don’t first have changes in health behavior,” says Katherine Baicker, dean of the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, and one of the study’s co-authors along with Zirui Song from Harvard Medical School.  “But if employers are offering these programs in hopes that health spending and absenteeism will go down, this study should give them pause,” Baicker says.

    An accompanying editorial in JAMA notes that “traditional, broad-based programs like the one analyzed by Song and Baicker may lack the necessary intensity, duration, and focus on particular employee segments to generate significant effects over a short time horizon.”

    In other words, don’t give up entirely on wellness efforts, but consider “more targeted approaches” that focus on specific workers who have higher risks, or on “health behaviors [that] may yield larger health and economic benefits,” the editorial suggests.

    There has been criticism of the Baicker and Song study by other scientists.  Some have said the author’s 18-month time frame was too short. Recognizing that as a potential flaw, the authors plan on a follow up after 3 years.

    Still, similar findings were recently reported in a 2018 study at the University of Illinois. This randomized controlled trial with university employees concluded that the workplace wellness program did not reduce health care costs or change health behaviors. The study found that wellness-program participants were likely already healthier and more motivated, suggesting that a primary benefit of wellness programs might be the ability to attract and retain healthier workers with lower levels of medical spending.


    “The optimistic interpretation is there is no way we can get improvements in health or more efficient spending if we don’t first have changes in health behavior.”


    Wellness means mental as well as physical health

    Today’s corporate wellness programs tend to focus on helping employees improve their health by creating clinical improvement initiatives around certain measures such as blood pressure, Body Mass Index (BMI), cholesterol, glucose, and smoking cessation. These are all important health metrics. However, mental health has been demonstrated to play a critically important role in employee productivity, absenteeism, engagement and retention.

    Moreover, as pointed out in the Baicker and Song study, changes in health behavior, something behavioral health coaching can effectively accomplish are a prerequisite for improvements in health or more efficient healthcare spending.

    Three reasons why employers should include mental health in their corporate wellness programs

    The cost to deal with mental health disorders is huge

    Healthstat summarized the relevance of mental health to employers very well in a blog posting last year. “Mental health issues are a hidden epidemic among American workers. 5 of the 10 leading causes of disability are mental health disorders, including depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and alcoholism. It is estimated that spending in the United States on depression alone accounts for more than $40 billion dollars, and the disorder is also responsible for 220 million sick days annually. Taken as a group, mental health issues result in an estimated $105 billion dollars per year in lost productivity.”

    In a related study by Jeffrey Kahn M.D., and Alan Langlieb, M.D., in their book, Mental Health and Productivity in the Workplace: A Handbook for Organizations and Clinicians, people with symptoms of depression had a fivefold or greater increase in time lost from work compared to those without symptoms of depression.

    Employees want behavioral health coaching

    In a recent Gallup poll, 8 in 10 American workers reported feeling stress sometimes or frequently during the day.  The Gallup study also reported that:

    • 40% said they want help with burnout at work
    •  29% said they want help with managing stress
    • 27% said they want help to improve their sleep health

    In today’s hyper-competitive labor market, employers hoping to attract and retain the best talent will need to carefully consider their employees’ interest in physical as well as mental well-being.

    Comorbidity is driving higher employer healthcare claims

    Comorbidity, the simultaneous existence of two or more chronic illnesses, makes diagnosis and treatment more difficult and drives higher healthcare cost.  Comorbid physical and mental health conditions are not at all uncommon.  29% of patients with a medical disorder also have a mental health condition.  68% of those with a mental health disorder also have a physical health condition.

    For various reasons including the perceived stigma of mental health, roughly half of those with mental health conditions won’t reach out for help. Behavioral health coaches, such as those in Espyr’s network of providers, are trained to uncover and address underlying mental health conditions affecting those with chronic physical illnesses.  That leads to better outcomes and reduces healthcare expense.

    About Espyr®

    Espyr is a leader in developing innovative behavioral health programs. Espyr’s solutions engage employees by proactively identifying at-risk employees and applying appropriate behavioral health intervention.  The Espyr approach enables employers to surgically target their healthcare spending where it’s most needed and can drive the greatest results. Ultimately, Espyr’s solutions result in reduced healthcare expense and increased employee productivity and well-being.

    To learn more about how Espyr can help your company click here or call 888-570-3479.

    Tag(s): Employee Health

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