A new study has found that even when it comes to something as broad as "wellness" such wellness programs have little recognizable impact on employee health, health beliefs, or medical utilization.

All things they were supposed to improve. 

Because wellness programs were given government legitimacy by the Obama administration under the 2010 Affordable Care Act, companies are spending money on them. Providing such programs became an industry in its own right, because the ACA provided incentives for firms to adopt them using financial benefits for program participants. Now, 84 percent of companies that provide health benefits also offer a workplace wellness program under the belief it will reduce health care costs, improve employee health, and that taxpayers would offset the cost.

Only that last part is true. Data from the Illinois Workplace Wellness Study, a randomized controlled trial, found that after 24 months a comprehensive workplace wellness program had no significant effects on measured physical health outcomes such as weight, blood pressure, cholesterol or blood glucose; rates of medical diagnoses; or the use of health care services. The comprehensive workplace wellness program, dubbed iThrive, was designed to represent a typical corporate wellness program offered by employers. It included three annual components: an on-site biometric screening and survey; an online health risk assessment; and a choice of wellness activities. 

In the study, individual employees were randomly assigned to a treatment group that was eligible to participate in a two-year comprehensive workplace wellness program, or a control group that was ineligible. The researchers evaluated the effects of the program on health beliefs, self-reported health behaviors, clinician-collected biometrics, and claims-based medical diagnoses and medical use. 

In a randomized controlled trial of more than 4,834 University of Illinois employees (2770 women), the researchers found that those invited to join the wellness program showed no significant differences in clinical outcomes compared with the control group. The program included paid time off for annual on-site health screenings, health risk assessments and ongoing wellness activities - for example, physical activity programs encouraging campus walks over lunch breaks, smoking-cessation programs and chronic disease self-management programs. 

Measures taken at 12- and 24-month intervals included 16 clinician-collected biometric outcomes; administrative claims related to medical diagnoses such as diabetes, hypertension and hyperlipidemia, and medical use such as office visits, inpatient visits, and emergency room visits; and 14 self-reported health-behavior and health-belief outcomes.  

The program affected two self-reported health outcomes: It increased the proportion of employees reporting that they have a primary care physician and improved employee beliefs about their own health, the authors report.