With the growing focus on health, nutrition and physical activity, workplace wellness programs are becoming increasingly offered by a number of Wisconsin companies to bolster healthy habits among employees. But as a fairly new option for employees, many wellness programs have a ways to go in order to increase participation and render long-term benefits.

The Well Wisconsin program incentivizes employees to complete signup and a health assessment screening with a $150 monetary benefit and provides a range of resources to employees, including digital health coaching.

Despite these efforts, the wellness program offered to state and local employees and their enrolled spouses resulted in only 30 percent participation in 2017.  

Justin Sydnor, associate professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Business, said these wellness programs are well-intentioned, but there is room for improvement.

“These programs, [like Well Wisconsin], aim to help people lead healthier lives by giving them incentives to engage with their health,” Sydnor said in an email to The Badger Herald. “There are good intentions behind that, but there is mounting evidence that wellness programs like these may not be effective at changing behavior.”

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Sydnor alluded to a large-scale experiment at the University of Illinois that tested a wellness program similar to Well Wisconsin on their employees.

No evidence was found that supported employees who participated in the program had any lower health costs or engaged in healthier behaviors a year later, Sydnor said.

The study concluded employees who were already healthy and regularly practicing healthy habits were more likely to participate in the wellness program than those employees who were generally less healthy

“So a large part of the incentives ends up going to rewarding people who are already doing healthy things, but not toward encouraging much improvement in health behaviors for those who could use to improve,” Sydnor said.

Jonothan Morgan, a physical activity coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, also recognized the impact a monetary incentive could have if used effectively, but he does not see it changing long-term behavior.

Sydnor said rewarding healthy employees is not necessarily a bad thing, though. Some employers may be targeting healthy workers and these wellness programs could be useful for that cause.

But Sydnor said this also means this could “be creating a differential benefit for people who are already doing healthy things.”

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Sydnor believes the greatest problem with wellness programs is too often they are focused on providing employees with information, rather than focusing on changing the environment in which employees live and work in.

“The problems are rooted in the struggle of getting yourself to actually do those behaviors in the face of temptation, social pressures and ingrained habits,” Sydnor said.

Robert McGrath, psychologist and coordinator for UW Health Services, said he finds changing behavior truly is a challenge.

Nutrition, physical activity and sleep habits are difficult to change in adults, McGrath said.

“A good wellness program that people follow up with can have a major impact on their lives, but getting people to pay attention and change their nutrition and health patterns is difficult,” McGrath said.

Currently, a number of comprehensive wellness programs offer health assessment screenings and campaigns for employees to get involved in, Morgan said.

But the real progress in health will be seen when work policies make it easier for employees to get active, healthy food choices are offered in vending machines and during meetings, and physical activity breaks are encouraged throughout the workday, Morgan said.

“We need to find ways to make it easier and more appealing and attractive to pick healthy foods instead of unhealthy ones,” Sydnor said. “We need to make active lifestyles enjoyable and easily embedded in daily life.”

But, nonetheless, Sydnor said the problems are difficult and multifaceted.

The consensus among the experts is wellness programs have the potential to change employee health behavior, if implemented correctly and if changes are made.

“The benefits can be pretty positive,” Morgan said. “We could see a fair amount of decrease among health costs, an increase in retention of employees, and better physical health and mental well being among users.”  

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Many wellness programs, like the Well Wisconsin Program, are incorporating health coaching, which could be a definite step in the right direction to bolster program use, Sydnor said.

Those who participate in the Well Wisconsin Program are subject to sharing their personal health screening and assessment results in order to develop the best course of action to better their health, which is often times health coaching offered through the program and insurance.

“There are some reasons to believe that effective coaching that helps people generate effective personalized strategies for changing behaviors may be effective. But it’s also the case that many people are reluctant to engage with these programs,” Sydnor said. “Finding ways of making it more attractive for people to engage with wellness coaches may be a positive direction for wellness programs over time.”