Saturday 25 May 2019

Work-based health plans don't cut sick days or boost productivity

The trial found that employers with a wellness programme had more employees taking part in regular exercise and actively managing their weight. Stock Image
The trial found that employers with a wellness programme had more employees taking part in regular exercise and actively managing their weight. Stock Image

Alex Matthews King

Workplace wellness programmes which aim to help employees stay fit, healthy and - crucially - productive, do not reduce sick days, staff turnover or improve job performance, a major trial has found.

For the first time, researchers, led by Harvard Medical School, have conducted a comprehensive trial to test the effects of diet advice, fitness coaching and mental health schemes offered by many businesses.

It found that employers with a wellness programme had more employees taking part in regular exercise and actively managing their weight.

But evidence of benefits in the areas which matter most to employers, and their profit margins, was scarce.

"Our findings show that health behaviours can respond to a workplace wellness programme, but they also temper expectations of realising large returns on investment in the short term," said Dr Zirui Song, lead author of the study published in the 'Journal of the American Medical Association'.

Wellness schemes have boomed in recent years, stimulated in part by tech companies like Facebook which see gym memberships, catering and entertainment perks as a way of retaining top talent.

Increasing awareness of long hours and high-pressure jobs driving employee burnout, and cutting into time for recreation, exercise and family life have seen other employers follow suit.

In the US, where 80pc of large organisations and around half of midsize employers offer such schemes, health initiatives are also seen as a way to cut the cost of long-term illness borne by employer-funded health insurance.

To test if they were having a positive effect, the Harvard team used data from 160 different employers and around 33,000 employees. It picked 20 sites at random, with 4,037 employees in all, to act as a test group where wellness programmes were in place.

These employees were given eight learning modules on eating well, getting active and stress reduction and were supported by dieticians and an employee wellness provider over 18 months.

Apart from the increased exercise and weight loss, the study found no significant effects in 80 different areas. (© Independent News Service)

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