Welcome to Reality signSeems like every month, the University of Illinois workplace wellness study re-enters the limelight, and earlier this month Aaron Carroll, MD really shoved it center stage in his New York Times piece, Workplace Wellness Programs Don’t Work Well. Why Some Studies Show Otherwise.

This was a randomized controlled study of an employee wellness program. To date, the study results have shown no improvement in health behaviors, health care costs, or productivity. To date.

You can read the full study paper published on the Bureau of Economic Research website. But if you’re not one to wade through a swamp of statistics, check out the study’s very own website for info, updates, and bar charts galore.

Does Feeling Valued Count?

Rather than cherry-picking the facts, allow me to just suggest questions to consider as you learn more about this study:

What does “doesn’t work” mean, anyway? Work to do what?

The study found that the number of program participants who believed their employer was committed to their health and safety increased significantly as an effect of the intervention. Is this important?

In the study paper, how many times do the researchers make the claim that has captured the imagination of Dr. Carroll and many others in the business and health care media, that “wellness doesn’t work”? (You can cheat by using your browser’s “Find” function. Or take a guess. It’s somewhere between -1 and +1.)

Was the study published in a peer-reviewed journal?

“I heavily favor peer-reviewed work.”

— Aaron Carroll, in The Power (and Weakness) of Peer Review, 2011.

How many employers, and how many different kinds of wellness strategies, were included in this study of the University of Illinois wellness program (called iThrive)?

Let’s say you’re running a program for a global manufacturing company or a tech start-up. How comparable is your employee population to the employees at University of Illinois?

A Comprehensive Wellness Program

iThrive is said to be a “comprehensive” wellness program. In my mind, a comprehensive wellness program might include some behavioral programs, cultural strategies, environmental strategies, and, most importantly, organizational strategies that promote healthy work.

Is this a comprehensive program? You be the judge. The core activies and strategies of iThrive:

  • Biometric health screenings
  • Health risk assessments
  • Participation incentives
  • Participation in “one of several activities in the fall and then again in the spring.” Activities included classes on chronic disease management; weight management; tai chi; physical fitness; financial wellness; healthy workplace habits; a tobacco cessation hotline; and an online, self-paced wellness challenge.”

A “Post-Intervention” Time Warp?

  • Screenings were conducted from August 15 to September 16, 2016.
  • Health risk assessment was conducted from September 8 to October 4.
  • Fall wellness activities were held October 10 to December 16.
  • Spring wellness activities were held January 30 to April 25, 2017.
  • “Post-intervention” healthcare utilization was measured for the period August 1, 2016 through July 31, 2017.

Thinking carefully about this timeline, what changes in healthcare utilization patterns would you expect during the first year of the program?

Keep these questions in mind. And I hope you’ll pose a lot more of your own when you read about future findings from this and other studies.


Check out Part II of this post, Studying the Study: Different Kinds of Analysis Yield Contradictory Results For Illinois Wellness Study.