May 26 (UPI) -- Workplace wellness programs designed to encourage employees to engage in activities and monitor their health might have negligible benefits, according to a study published Tuesday by JAMA Internal Medicine.
Researchers said business owners and managers should "temper their expectations" regarding the effects of these initiatives on overall health, and consider whether they are worth the effort.
With employers more concerned about the health of their workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic, such programs could gain traction in many industries across the country, but they might not achieve the stated goals, the researchers said.
"At a time where concern about health and safety in the workplace is paramount, employers could use wellness initiatives to signal care for their workers," co-author David Molitor, an assistant professor of finance and economics at the University of Illinois Gies College of Business, told UPI.
"But this is not a replacement for taking actions that have been shown to protect or improve employee health," he added, including steps to ensure workplace safety and providing employees with protective equipment.
For the research, Molitor and his colleagues assessed the impact of a two-year workplace wellness initiative implemented at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The program provided 3,300 employees with financial incentives and paid time off for annual on-site health screenings, annual exams and ongoing activities, including organized physical activity sessions, smoking cessation programs and disease management classes.
They compared healthcare outcomes and attitudes among employees enrolled in the program to those of 1,584 staff members not included in the initiative.
Overall, they found that participants in the wellness program were 5 percent more likely to have a regular primary care physician and more likely to have a positive attitude about their own health, compared to employees who did not participate in wellness-related initiatives.
Of the 3,300 participants, 56 percent underwent biometric screening -- height, weight, blood pressure, blood work, blood sugar measurement -- and online health risk assessment in the first year, while 31 percent also attended a wellness-related event in the first year, the researchers said.
However, they also observed that the wellness program had no significant effects on participants' height, weight, waist circumference, body mass index, blood pressure, cholesterol or blood-sugar levels.
In addition, the risk for high blood pressure, diabetes or obesity was roughly the same for participants and non-participants after one and two years, researchers said.
Similarly, there were no differences between the two groups in terms of doctors' office visits, hospital visits or emergency department visits.
"The study found that a comprehensive workplace wellness programs improved employees' perceptions about their health, but it did not improve clinical health measures or reduce health care use over a two year period," Molitor said.
"Employers who do adopt wellness programs should also think carefully about how to evaluate whether the program works as intended."