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Do Wellness Programs Work?

Shannon Harvey

In my 37 years of living as a human being I’ve noticed a very distinct pattern which goes something like this:

      1. I throw myself into life with gusto and enthusiasm, be it with work or home life commitments
      2. A trigger wakes me up to the fact that I’m neglecting my health. For example, I’ve had one too many sleepless nights in a row or I “suddenly” can’t fit into my skinny jeans.
      3. The trigger causes me to identity the “problem” and I sign up to a program that promises a fix.
This week I was prompted to do a little self-reflection on my life-long health tug-of-war when I saw an article in the New York Times with the headline “Workplace Wellness Programs Don’t Work Well. Why Some Studies Show Otherwise.” The article was about new research on a program in the U.S. called “iThrive,” which was offered to employees at the University of Illinois. It sounded great. In exchange for enticing financial incentives, staff were offered health checks and coaching, along with their choice of classes in chronic disease management, weight loss, and financial wellness, as well as online health challenges, quit-smoking programs and exercise classes – A $30 Amazon gift card just to fill in your survey? Sure. $200 to sign up to tai chi class? I’m in.

The problem was, it didn’t work.

After receiving interest from nearly 5000 volunteers, the researchers randomly selected 3300 people to participate in the program and then followed everyone for a year to see how it affected their health and productivity. One year later, the results were stunningly disappointing. Aside from the fact that people who did the wellness program were more likely to have had a medical check and felt that their employer placed a priority on health, they had no fewer sick days or medical expenses, nor were they more likely to go to the gym or run a marathon. They weren’t even more productive at work or less likely to quit their job.

What was interesting about the iThrive study was that when the researchers crunched their data as though they had done an observational study (which is usually done when assessing wellness programs), they showed that the program was effective. An observational study doesn’t have the “randomly controlled” factor in it. That is to say, it doesn’t allow for things like the fact that people who sign up for wellness programs are more likely to be healthier anyway.

As a health journalist with an autoimmune disease, there’s a good reason I’m into wellness. I’ve done all manner of yoga challenges, boot camps, cleanses, and retreats in an effort to look after my health. And I’m far from being alone. I was recently in the U.S. at a conference aimed at the growing $3.7 trillion wellness industry. Apparently workplace wellness alone represents a sizeable and growing market and is worth $40.7 billion globally. But all this got me thinking about all the “proven” health initiatives I’ve invested my time and money into over the years. I couldn’t help but wonder if any of them have actually worked.

It’s no secret that most people who diet will regain one-third of their lost weight in the first year after losing it and that in the following three to five years they’ll likely be back to where they started. For many smokers it may take 30 or more quit attempts before being successful. One concerned health consultant and blogger is so worried about the validity of workplace wellness programs, he’s offered a three million dollar reward to anyone who can prove their strategy actually works.

Considering all this, the case in support of wellness programs is looking pretty precarious. But after having a bit of a think, I realised that there are two obvious reasons that the iThrive program wouldn’t have “worked" for me.


1. I probably wouldn’t have stuck to the health activities after the classes finished.

    As I wrote in my piece When Old Habits Die Hard: The Science of Being Healthy, my problem isn’t getting motivated to make healthy changes. My problem is making changes stick. Sure I’ve done juice cleanses and lost weight, but who wants to drink nothing but vegetable juice for their whole life? I recently participated in an eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program and experienced profound personal changes. But truthfully, if not for the fact that I have a team of researchers tracking my biomarkers as part of my new documentary project in which I meditate every day for a year, I’m certain that I’d be struggling to find the time and motivation to meditate for 45 minutes each day.


    2. There is no single course, program, or class that will solve all my health problems.

      I’ve learned the hard way that there’s no point in signing up for eight-weeks of stress-reducing tai chi if I’m going to be chronically sleep deprived because of my work-overload. Nor is a revolutionary new vegan diet going to improve my health if I’m going to replace meat with low-nutrient highly processed food. For the sake of my regular readers, I’ll refer you to my piece Stop Looking for the ONE Thing That Will Cure You at this point because I’m starting to sound like a broken record when I bang on week-in and week-out about all the evidence demonstrating that that having good health requires taking a whole-life approach. (You know the drill – getting enough sleep AND exercising regularly AND eating healthy food AND reducing chronic stress…)

      All this is to say, yes, wellness programs can and do initiate healthier behaviour. But the activities we undertake have to be consistent and sustainable if we want them to actually work. It’s interesting that a new study on effective weight loss strategies demonstrated that people were able to successfully keep the weight off, not by following any single revolutionary new diet plan, but instead by being taught how to change their eating behaviour. In other words, they learned how to develop healthy, sustainable life-long habits.

      From now on, whenever I’m trying to decide whether not to sign up to a fabulous new wellness program, I’ll be asking whether or not this is a “just for now“ thing, or if it’s something I can see myself doing every day for the rest of my life.


      Main photo by Erik Brolin on Unsplash

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