Today, most large employers and an increasing number of medium and small sized companies offer at least some form of a “wellness program” to their employees.  

But, with this increasing popularity comes an increased scrutiny by the industry at large. As we outlined in our last blog post, numerous reports have ripped “wellness programs” for not moving the needle on any of the business objectives for which companies implement them: most notably, to increase productivity and reduce overall health-related costs.

The issue with these reports is that they often evaluate one specific program at one specific company. Word then spreads like a game of telephone and lost in translation is the reality that all “wellness programs” are not the same.

Health fairs. Dedicated workplace nap or exercise rooms. Reimbursement and subsidized programs. Healthy eating, weight loss, and smoking cessation programs. Sports leagues and workout "challenges." On-site clinics... the list goes on. Then, there’s the delivery mechanism – will employees access these programs through an online portal? A mobile app? Will it be set up by their employer? Or through a third-party vendor? Each of these programs and their means of delivery are vastly different – and yet, they are all cast under the same "wellness" umbrella.

“Wellness programs” are like driver’s licenses – everyone has an idea of what they think each means and what it can do, but in reality, context matters. For example, in Massachusetts, you need a class D license to operate a standard, non-commercial motor vehicle that is less than 26,000 lbs. But what if you want to operate a vehicle over that weight limit, or a motorcycle, commercial vehicle, tractor trailer, bus,  boat, airplane, helicopter…? For each vehicle characteristic, you have specific operation requirements.

The same applies to “wellness programs” and as such, one program does not reflect the concept as a whole.

Wellness programs apply to different individuals based on context. For example, the idea of wellness looks very different for a 22-year old recent college graduate who spends her free time competing in CrossFit events vs. a 65-year old grandfather of four, who recently had his hip replaced and is approaching retirement. So why do we think the same program could possibly work for each of them?

Can wellness programs be defined?

This brings us back to a key question: how do you define a wellness program? In a Kaiser report, RAND relies on whether or not a program offers three services:

  • Screening to identify health risks
  • Lifestyle management services to reduce risks through encouraging healthier behavior
  • Disease management services to support people who already have chronic conditions.  

A Kaiser Family Foundation and Health Research and Educational Trust (HRET) survey on the other hand was slightly less strict on how it defined “wellness programs.” The survey found that half of firms offering health benefits in 2015 offered wellness programs related to “tobacco cessation,” “weight loss,” and/or “other lifestyle or behavioral coaching.” Additionally, the reviewed wellness programs varied in how financial incentives and health screenings were involved, as well as whether or not they are offered within the group health plan.

“Workplace wellness programs vary in the services and activities they include, and about three-in-ten large employers use incentives to encourage employees to participate,” according to a Kaiser report. “Depending on a program’s characteristics, different federal rules might apply.”

With varying definitions, it further underlines the point that when someone says ‘wellness program,’ ask yourself what they mean. Do they offer screenings, are they offering lifestyle management, disease management, or some combination?

Far too often a wellness program is thought of in the same light as a driver’s license, broadly generalized based on a preconceived norm. We know this does not make sense, much like the fact that you cannot overgeneralize an individual’s wellbeing.

Wellbeing does not boil down to one standardized measure like how fast one person runs a mile – it’s all encompassing. Sleep health, diet, exercise, stress all feed into one’s overall holistic wellness. And everyone needs the correct equation, based on the context of his or her own unique lifestyle, to effectively manage their wellbeing. Fittingly, for a wellness program to work, it needs to respect the context provided by the individual. Otherwise, saying they work is not very convincing based on what we’ve read so far.

In our next post, we’ll dive deeper into a specific case study and explain why one generic program was unsuccessful, but also outline how with a few tweaks, it could bring impactful ROI – Stay tuned!