What Workplace Wellness Programs Really Get You

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Many of us get our health care from work, which sometimes means weird extra programming to improve health and lower costs (at least according to HR). These workplace wellness programs might include smoking-cessation programs, in-office health assessments, and self-management education; they also might seem just dubiously connected to the actual state of your health and its budget.

If you've been skeptical of this kind of policy, get flexible and pat yourself on the back: New research from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has found that workplace wellness programs provide "underwhelming" contributions to health and cost reductions at best. The research team followed nearly 5,000 participants for two years and found "no significant effects on measured physical health outcomes such as weight, blood pressure, cholesterol or blood glucose; rates of medical diagnoses; or the use of health care services."

This doesn't mean there's no point to learning about managing your own health or what resources your employer provides to help you with that. It does, however, suggest that workplace wellness programs are a bandage that cover up larger systemic health issues. At a time when we're paying more for employer-provided health insurance than ever before, there are structural ways to improve employee wellbeing, like enforcing work-hour boundaries, encouraging proper sleep, prioritizing workers' mental health, and paying enough to support healthy lifestyles.

These changes are a little bigger than attending a seminar about sunscreen use or gym memberships. But they'll go a lot farther toward improving your health — not to mention your productivity.