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4th September 2018

Are wellness programmes a waste of money?

Employees took an average of only 4.1 days in 2017, compared to 7.1 back in 1993.

Although recent figures from the Office for National Statistics show a significant fall in the number of sick days employees are taking off work, with employees taking an average of only 4.1 days in 2017, compared to 7.1 back in 1993, many employers have put in place wellness programmes aimed at encouraging healthy lifestyles among the workforce.

The programmes are frequently claimed to improve employee health and lower employer costs, and one meta-analysis of the literature on costs and savings associated with such programmes found medical costs falling by about $3.27 for every dollar spent and absenteeism costs falling by about $2.73 for every dollar spent.

But a recent large-scale study of the wellness programme at the University of Illinois, where – not unusually – participation in the programme is voluntary, shows those staff most inclined to opt to take part in the wellness programme were active, fairly young, and moderately well-off, with little evidence of chronic health problems. The study suggests that if these patterns generalise to the opt-in patterns at other organisations, it would indicate that prior wellbeing programme research (that hasn’t used a randomised design and allowed for selection effects) has tended to find good health outcomes for participants, but that they would probably be doing well regardless.