Workplace Wellness: Can These Employer Money-Savers Keep You Healthy?

There's a good chance your employer offers wellness perks, whether it's a discount on your gym membership, a smoking cessation program or companywide weight-loss challenges. But the mere existence of these programs won't make you healthy -- they require your involvement.

Your choice to get involved in workplace wellness programs likely comes down to whether or not you believe they'll help you achieve health goals or pay off in some other measurable way. Employers hope your participation will result in health care savings and a healthier workforce overall.

Why Wellness?

American employers and the people who work for them carry nearly half of the country's burden of health care spending. Your company pays for it in your health insurance policy, and you chip in with your cost-sharing copays, deductibles and coinsurance. It seems like a win-win to reduce these costs by keeping you healthy. And judging by their adoption rate, employers want to make them work.

Seventy-four percent of U.S. employers that provide health benefits offer at least one wellness program. For large firms with 200 or more employees, it's 98 percent, according to the 2014 annual survey of employer health benefits from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

These wellness benefits largely fall under two categories: those that measure health and identify problems, and those that help employees adopt healthy behaviors.

The health measurements, including health-risk assessments (offered by 33 percent of employers) and more in-depth biometric screenings, including lab tests, may be tied to financial incentives such as gift cards or higher health savings account contributions. For programs that help employees get healthy, the incentives are results such as lower body weight, better nutrition, disease management and, ultimately, fewer sick days.

Achieving these ends depends on participation, and whether you participate largely depends on the program itself.

The Case for Pairing Health and Work

"You have to make these programs fun, and you have to make them social," says Josh Stevens, CEO of Keas, which creates corporate wellness programs. "When it's fun, it doesn't feel like work, and when it's social, it's not shameful to admit your BMI or talk about personal health, because it's a community issue, something you can share and talk about."

Keas provides health management programs to large companies including Pfizer Inc. and Target Corp. Stevens says the company's approach delivers results because it's modeled after social media, allowing employees to share photos, post statuses, see a social feed from other workers and comment on one another's health goals.

The community model just may work. Research has consistently shown that team approaches to weight loss and other health metrics can have better results than individual efforts.

What doesn't work, Stevens says, is a top-down, directive approach.

"Here's a gym membership, or here's something to read ... This is the top-down approach that came before and didn't do a good job at engaging people," Stevens says. "Most people can't or just won't take this kind of directive. But if you set up a competition to see who can eat the most greens this month, with participants posting photos of their plates, that's not hard to do. It doesn't cost much of anything and is very motivational because it's fun and social."

Evidence on Effectiveness is Mixed

Research proving that these programs are effective is difficult to come by, largely because they take years to implement and begin showing results.

One of the largest studies on workplace wellness programs involved 14,555 employees and spanned seven years at PepsiCo. After three years, the program was associated with lower health care costs. After seven years, the savings averaged $360 per employee.

But other research doesn't have such clear-cut findings. A 2013 analysis by the California Health Benefits Review Program, for example, found that although wellness programs may assist in smoking cessation and reducing alcohol consumption, there was "ambiguous" evidence -- at best -- supporting any reduction in body mass index, blood pressure, cholesterol or blood sugar -- all risk factors for disease.

Again, you can't reap the benefits if you don't participate. A RAND Corporation study found that less than half of employees take part in workplace health initiatives, though those who did participate saw positive changes in exercise frequency, weight control and smoking behavior.

How Badly Do You Want the Benefits?

Ultimately, the effectiveness of any health improvement program will depend on employee involvement. Though some employers offer incentives as a carrot, workers who recognize the value of better health and have the motivation to achieve that end regardless of the outside rewards will likely be the ones to get the most out of workplace wellness.