Does The Illinois Workplace Wellness Study Say What Everyone Says It Says?

in Employee Wellness Programs

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.

Holiday Stress Programs? Bah!

in Commentary, Employee Wellness Programs, Stress, Uncategorized

The Joy of Sharing image

It may be too late for employee wellness professionals to adjust their plans for holiday-season programs this year, but now is an ideal time to rethink the holiday stress programs we typically offer.

Every December, wellness program managers promote programs about managing “holiday stress.” These commonly take the form of lunch-and-learns or communication campaigns. They have the usual catchy titles like Holiday Stress Less and Take the Hassle Out of the Holidays.

The holiday season is stressful for many employees — no doubt about it. And it’s distinct from other sources of stress in the workplace in that the conditions that cause holiday stress can, indeed, be modified with behavioral approaches.

But I suspect that our holiday stress programs add to employee stress. They contribute to a culture that considers stress the primary mental state in which we experience the holidays and, as such, comprise a self-fulfilling prophecy.

May I suggest a new approach to promoting mental health during the holidays, even if some of the content may be the same? Let’s offer programs that promote happiness and joy, rather than just trying to remediate stress. Next year, instead of teaching people to manage holiday stress, why not teach them how to nurture their holiday happiness? Why not publish newsletter articles like “How to Share Holiday Joy”?

Instead of “5 Tips for Managing Your Holiday To-Do List,” how about “101 Reasons to Enjoy a Holiday Vacation”? Rather than “Balancing the Burdens of Work/Life During the Holidays,” how about “Focus on Family this Holiday Season!”

[Originally posted by Bob Merberg in May 2010 on the In TEWN blog.]