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Why Workplace Wellness Challenges Are a Bad Idea

They might seem like a great way to promote employee health and wellness, but they're usually not in reality. Here's why.

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Workplace wellness challenges are often designed to help employees lose weight, walk more, or improve their overall health. On the face of it, these types of challenges seem like a great way to promote team bonding, strengthen company culture, and improve employee health. But the reality is that they often fall short in both participation and outcomes. In this post, we’ll dive into the reasons why you should think twice before implementing a workplace wellness challenge at your organization and discuss an alternative solution. 

What is a workplace wellness challenge? 

Let's start with an overview of workplace wellness challenges. Workplace wellness challenges are designed to promote healthy behaviors among employees in the hopes of creating long-term positive health outcomes. They are often centered around movement goals, weight loss, smoking cessation, and improved nutrition. Challenge rewards can vary from a monetary prize to something physical like a Peloton machine or Fitbit. 

Why do companies implement employee wellness challenges? 

There are many reasons companies conduct these programs, as employers believe they contribute to lower turnover rates, reduced absenteeism, higher employee job satisfaction, and increased productivity. One of the biggest reasons employers implement these challenges is to reduce healthcare costs. Offering an incentive for smoking cessation may lead to a healthier population and, in turn, lower health care premiums for employers. The 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA) also encouraged employers to adopt wellness programs by allowing them to offer employees a discount of up to 30% of their insurance premium for participating in wellness initiatives and up to 50% for programs designed to prevent or reduce tobacco use.

Why workplace wellness challenges are not worth it

Workplace wellness challenges might sound like a good idea in theory but in reality, they often just don't work. Here's why:

They result in low engagement and ROI

Wellness programs are a $50 billion industry, but most companies aren't getting great returns on their investment. There's little evidence that wellness challenges improve health, and it's hard to get employees to engage with them. Wellness challenges are also often short-term in nature and may fail to cause long-term change as they do little to address the root cause of many conditions. 

Here’s more evidence that wellness challenges often fail to meet their goals: 

  • In 2018, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign researchers developed a randomized controlled trial of a workplace wellness program and recruited almost 5,000 employees to participate in the study. More than 1,500 were put in the control group, which received no services. About 3,300 were invited to complete a biometric health screening and online health risk assessment and then offered weekly wellness activities. Employees were offered financial rewards for participating in the program. After a year, researchers didn’t find significant differences in medical spending, productivity, or health behaviors between the two groups. 
  • A 2019 study of more than 32,000 employees at a large U.S. warehouse retail company found that employees who were randomly assigned to receive wellness programming experienced no significant effects on pre-specified outcomes. The program included modules on nutrition, physical activity, and stress reduction. After 18 months, those who participated in the program were more likely to report engaging in regular exercise and actively managing weight, but there were no significant differences in other self-reported health outcomes, such as sleep quality and food choices. There were also no effects on cholesterol, blood pressure, body mass index, medical spending, or employment outcomes like absenteeism, job tenure, and job performance. 

One thing to consider is that it’s not necessarily employee wellness programs themselves that lead to disappointing outcomes. Rather, it’s how they are designed. Short-term programs that only target one aspect of wellness or that require employees to take one specific type of class at pre-arranged times may not work for everyone. The best way to increase employee engagement is to give your employees more choice and freedom in how they approach their wellness. 

They prescribe a narrow definition of wellness 

Wellness can be physical, mental, or even financial. Wellness challenges are often aimed at the physical. While this is important, it doesn't cover the whole wellness picture. Different pillars of wellness often influence one another. Someone who struggles with mental health may find it challenging to take care of themselves physically. Likewise, someone who struggles to pay off student loan debts every month may not have the extra funds to join a gym or buy healthy foods. To truly promote employee wellness, you need to be open to the idea that every employee will define "wellness" differently and have their own unique wants and needs.

Wellness challenges harm some employees

The greatest danger of workplace wellness challenges is the harm they may inflict. Studies show that 28.8 million Americans will have an eating disorder in their lifetime. Workplace wellness challenges are often weight-focused, which can be triggering for someone who has struggled with eating disorders in the past. Weight-focused challenges can reinforce stigma around body weight and size and create a stressful work environment for many employees. By attempting to tackle the physical pillar of wellness, you can end up greatly damaging the mental health of your employees. 

An alternative to workplace wellness challenges

Instead of creating restrictive wellness challenges, invest in a holistic picture of wellness that will keep your employees happy, healthy, and productive. Consider a lifestyle spending account (LSA), which allows employers to support a wider set of wellness needs. LSAs are non-salaried allowances that employees can use according to their personal preferences. Unlike flexible spending accounts (FSAs) and health savings accounts (HSAs), LSAs are fully funded by the employer and considered taxable income when spent. You can define eligible expenses that fit the unique needs of your workforce, including grocery delivery, lunch allowances for in-office workers, student loan aid, mental health resources, gym memberships, family support, and professional development. 

Bright Health launched the BrighterLife employee well-being program, anchored by the company’s LSA. Employees are given a monthly allowance in their LSA to be used across six well-being categories of their choice, including physical, mental, financial, professional, environmental, and community. The flexibility empowers Bright Health employees to spend these dollars in the ways that matter most to them. With an employee engagement rate of 93%, the program has been widely used across Bright Health’s entire employee base. 

Download the full case study here or contact us directly at sales@getbenepass.com

Benepass Team

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