Employee Wellness Plans Often Costly and Ineffective
> 4/6/2007 2:01:25 PM

Heavy marketing and an overriding concern over the bottom line has convinced many business owners and executives to invest in employee wellness plans, or "disease management reports," promising to better gague their workers' health, assign them appropriate healthcare plans, and offer lower premiums, saving everyone a good deal of money in the process. But medical and financial evidence concerning the ultimate benefits of these programs has been inconclusive at best. These health risk appraisals claim to reduce costs through intervention by surveying and identifying problem employees, keeping them healthy and avoiding the considerable fees that will accrue when their conditions grow progressively worse. Individuals are often required to fill out detailed forms about dietary and exercise habits, family histories and pre-existing conditions in order to provide complete wellness profiles for research. Simply show them how (un)healthy they are and tell them how to modify their behaviors, the programs argue, and you will avoid future expenses; our services will thereby more than pays for their own fees. How will they make these changes concrete?  Positive thinking. Employees may even be encouraged to improve their habits with "rewards" offered to those who move to fit within certain health guidelines. But letting a worker know that he should watch his blood pressure or that her poor diet and genetic influences leave her vulnerable to breast cancer will not necessarily lead to a more efficient office.

As an in-depth post on the consistently excellent health blog junkfoodscience.com reports, many of the supposed benefits of these programs evolve from a false but widely held conceit: While the public has largely been sold on the idea that aging and chronic diseases are under our control and can be diverted through "healthy lifestyles" and control of certain "risk factors," many such beliefs exceed the evidence. Disease is a simple fact of life that cannot be avoided through greater awareness, regardless of the source. Multiple studies on the topic provide very little in the way of workable data on the relative efficiacy of various programs. In the case of obesity, for example, beyond some highly publicized examples of employees losing weight under company health plans, there is no empirical evidence suggesting that sponsored behavioral interventions in any way lower rates of mortality or improve quality of life factors among the obese. Some insurers also play conflict-of-interest roles in the matter by offering more cost-efficient coverage based on surveys recorded by their own representatives/affiliates. The idea that they would sponsor programs allowing business owners to save money by subscribing to their own policies is questionable.

The physical health of one's employees is obviously a very real concern. And individuals at risk from particular conditions might benefit from some form of casual intervention. But factors like emotional stability, stress levels and job satisfaction are much more accurate predictors of performance quality than blood pressure or body mass. Though positive lifestyle changes are to be commended, the idea that certain individuals will become more productive after losing ten pounds or quitting caffeine is difficult to demonstrate. Disease management reports are generally designed to address the risks posed by chronic conditions like heart disease, cancer and diabetes, not mental health issues like depression and anxiety that are usually much more difficult to quantify. When working with particular conditions among small populations over specified periods of time, these programs could indeed prove cost-efficient, increasing the awareness of health risks and leading participants to seek further treatment, but in a more generalized setting their results have not been shown to justify their prices.

Perhaps, in order to motivate more productive workers, business owners need not invest in costly programs or try and persuade their employees to lose weight and eat more vegetables. They just need to work toward making long-term employment at their businesses into a more rewarding experience. 

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