Why Employee Wellness Programs Fail
Heidi Zwart
why employee wellness programs fail

Employee wellness programs seem like a good idea. After all, what organization doesn’t want happy and healthy employees? More and more companies are investing in initiatives to improve the health of their people, but ultimately companies are discovering the same thing. Their employee wellness programs fail. 

Companies are acutely aware of the need to offer employees benefits that go beyond paid time off, company holidays, and a great work space. So, to boost the health of their employees and their organization, forward-thinking employers are looking to wellness programs to fill the gap. While well intentioned, employee wellness programs often fail because they miss some crucial components.  

Lack of Engagement

Research suggests that nearly 60% of employees do not participate in employee wellness programs. Those who do participate are already in generally good health. Incentive-based programs like weight loss challenges, step challenges, or free gym memberships draw those who are already invested in their health. The employees that companies need to reach are often the ones sitting on the sidelines.

Poor ROI

A company’s primary incentive to offer wellness programs to their employees is to save costly health care expenses down the road. Unfortunately, the data doesn’t support the investment. The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found no significant difference in clinical measures of health, health care spending and utilization, or employment health outcomes. While participants developed healthier behaviors, they did not see a reversal in overall health outcomes.  

Single-dimensional Focus

Wellness programs that only focus on their employees’ physical health also account for why employee wellness programs fail. The Gallup Organization identified five essential elements of well being – Physical, Emotional, Community, Career, and Financial. Physical health is only one component of overall well being. Current trends suggest that employees are seeking more support for their mental health and financial health. Therefore, without holistic support of all five dimensions, employee wellness programs miss the mark. 

Miss the Root Cause

Wellness programs address symptoms, not root causes. The majority of health care costs are created by those who already have chronic conditions, like metabolic syndrome. Without addressing the cause of these conditions, wellness programs miss the opportunity to make long-term changes to employee health. About one-third of company employees account for almost 62% of the health care costs. Without long-term lifestyle adjustments, employee wellness programs fail.

Insufficient Cultural Change

If an organization’s culture doesn’t match the employee wellness program goals, results are fleeting. Companies that offer wellness programs but continue to bring donuts to meetings, expect long work hours, or lack senior leadership buy-in should expect diminishing returns. Without shifting the organization to a culture that visibly and vigorously supports employee wellness, programs will fail.

These five issues don’t encompass all of the reasons employee wellness programs fail, but they highlight the complexity of the challenges. Without a shift in the employee wellness space, these programs will continue to yield a poor return on investment. 
If you’re considering implementing an employee wellness program, start by asking your employees what they want. Their answers may surprise you! Only then can you more confidently evaluate holistic, well being options that work.

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