The big question at the HERO Forum: Do wellness programs work? 

Women practicing tree pose in yoga class
October 18, 2018

The HERO Forum is always stimulating, but this year it went a step further. If you’re not familiar with the Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO), it’s an association dedicated to advancing health, well-being and performance through employer leadership. Its members are employers, vendors, consultants/brokers and researchers. Mercer collaborated with HERO to develop a scorecard that helps employers measure their use of best practices in six areas, from strategic planning to measurement and evaluation.

You may recall a study that was released earlier this year that generated headlines like this one: Study Finds Virtually Zero Benefit From Workplace Wellness Program In 1st Year. And while you might think an organization devoted to promoting wellness would want to let this study fade from memory, instead, HERO invited one of the authors of the study, Julian Reif, PhD, to this year’s Forum. His presentation was followed by a panel discussion lead by Ron Goetzel, PhD, with Dr. Reif and two university-based researchers/practitioners who have implemented successful workplace wellness programs. Needless to say, it was a lively discussion. Here are our key takeaways:

  • Does RCT really work for wellness? The study was a Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT) – often referred to as the gold standard of research studies. In this study, nearly 5,000 employees were randomly assigned to the wellness program or to a control group with no access to the program. But, as we’ve learned from analyzing data from the HERO Scorecard, leadership support for employee well-being, a culture of health and a sense of community, are all important to the success of well-being initiatives. The RCT may fall short of creating this type of an environment when it only focuses on a portion of the population.
  • Wellbeing continues to evolve and expand. The study focused on industry guidelines for a wellness program and included on-campus biometric screenings, online assessments, a large suite of wellness activities and financial rewards for completing steps in the program. Dr. Reif conceded that their program was based on typical wellness programs at the time and recognized that as the concept of well-being continues to evolve, we have seen an expansion of wellness programs to embrace mental and financial health as well as to address social determinants of health.
  • Personalization matters. One of the findings from the study was that smokers were among the employees least likely to participate in the wellness program. This points to the need to approach smokers differently and perhaps have an array of options to help with smoking cessation.
  • Change takes time. The study was only for a year. Dr. Reif acknowledged that it may take longer for a wellness program to show results, and they plan to continue their study for four more years.

Still looking for proof that wellness programs have value? Check out Beth Umland’s post about an analysis of Mercer survey data that found lower turnover in companies who have more wellbeing best practices in place. In a tight labor market, that is worth something. And this article in the Harvard Business Review discusses the challenges of measuring wellness program effectiveness – but contends it can be done.