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Are Workplace Wellness Programs Worth It?

Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More

Does your employer offer a workplace wellness program? Increasingly more common, such programs normally focus on two goals:

  • Prevent disease and disability among employees by teaching and motivating them to adopt healthier habits
  • Help employees manage chronic diseases to maintain health and wellbeing

Obviously, the overarching goal of workplace wellness programs is to reduce the company’s health care costs. It seems logical that by helping employees achieve better health, they will require less health care and, in turn, the cost to insure employees will decrease. But is this what really happens?

A recent study published in the journal Health Affairs examined this very question. In the study, the researchers analyzed health-related data for several thousand PepsiCo employees over a 7-year period. They looked at health care costs regarding each goal – preventing future illness and managing chronic illness.

The results were mixed, causing a surge in media coverage suggesting that workplace wellness programs aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. On a positive note, the disease management part of the program did reduce health care costs by approximately $136 per member per month, primarily due to fewer hospital admissions. The disease management program includes regular phone contact with a nurse to help employees manage diseases such as asthma, diabetes, or high blood pressure.

But the prevention portion of the program – the part we most often think of when we hear the words “workplace wellness program” – did not produce any significant reductions in health care costs. The prevention program includes health risk assessments, smoking cessation programs, and educational coaching on weight loss, exercise, and stress management through reading materials or phone calls with wellness coaches.

Keep in mind that PepsiCo’s workplace wellness program is pretty well-established (it started in 2003) and well-respected in the business community. It was disappointing and notable that the much-touted program did not meet the cost savings goals it had set. But are reduced health care costs the only positive things can result from workplace wellness programs?

Some say no. While these programs might not result in a lot of health care savings, some employers insist they boost employee morale, reduce absenteeism, and improve recruitment efforts. Any or all of these benefits can make a company more profitable.

What do you think? Are workplace wellness programs worth it? It’s an important question, considering that half of our country’s employers with at least 50 employees offer wellness programs. It’s also a key component of the Affordable Care Act because it allows employers to reward those who participate in these programs and penalize those who do not. This could impact an employee’s health care insurance costs by thousands of dollars a year.

Workplace wellness programs sound great in theory, but we need solid data showing that they’re effective before companies spend ample money implementing them, and especially before companies even begin to think about enforcing them through rewards and penalties. We want a well workforce, but we need to figure out the best way to create one first.


Begley, S. (January 27, 2014). PepsiCo’s workplace wellness program fails bottom line, study says. Chicago Tribune (Kindle edition).

Keep Reading By Author Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.
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