Genoese Fortress

The Wellness Scam Impervious to Facts

A special kind of wellness woo as taken root in HR departments all over the world. Corporate wellness is a $53 billion industry selling an appealing narrative. Acme Widgets can cut its health costs and boost productivity if it nudges employees to adopt healthy habits. Healthy lifestyles will save us from illness, right? So businesses eagerly hand over billions to wellness vendors. But there’s just one little catch. Investing in this wellness scam has no impact.

That’s the finding of a new RCT published in Health Affairs.

Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Stress

This was a cluster randomized trial conducted at BJ’s Wholesale Club. The test group was 25 worksites that enjoyed an excellent wellness program. Another 125 sites served as the control. The assignment was random. The program had modules on nutrition, physical activity, and stress.

Self-reports on the program were encouraging. After three years, employees in the test group said they were living more healthfully. They were more actively watching their weight. But those self-reports did not line up with health outcomes.

Self-assessments of health were not improved. Nor were clinical markers of health. Spending on healthcare did not change, nor did the use of it. Job performance and absenteeism? No change. Most notably, all that watching of weight had zero effect on BMI. At the end of three years, the average BMI in the test group was 30.1. In the matched control group, it was 29.8.

This is not the first time an RCT has shown these programs have no effect.

Facts Are No Match for a Great Story

So why do businesses persist in dumping tens of billions of dollars on corporate wellness woo? One factor is the pervasive bias about health and behavior. Especially in the corporate setting, the belief in the power of the right behaviors and the right attitude is nearly unshakable. Humility about human frailty is not a great way to get ahead.

So it’s quite appealing to believe that the right corporate culture can motivate people to be healthy. Good and motivated employees won’t suffer from diseases linked to unhealthy lifestyles. This is the fundamental lie that leads people to believe obesity is a disease of bad behavior by weak and flawed people.

Biology and Behavior

But the truth is that all humans are vulnerable. Of course, some behaviors can have a big effect on health. Opting to get vaccinated for COVID-19 offers close to a 100 percent guarantee that you won’t die from that disease.

However, obesity – along with all the chronic diseases that can result from it – is a different matter. For the most part, obesity results from inheriting genes that make a person susceptible and living in an environment that triggers it. Good behavior? It helps, but on average, not dramatically. From intensive efforts to change behaviors, a person can expect a five or ten percent benefit.

So the corporate wellness scam serves mainly to distract from what people living with obesity need to improve their health – access to real, effective obesity care.

Click here to read the study in Health Affairs and here to read more about it in the Washington Post.

Genoese Fortress, painting by Konstantin Bogaevsky / WikiArt

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June 19, 2021

2 Responses to “The Wellness Scam Impervious to Facts”

  1. June 19, 2021 at 6:45 am, Al Lewis said:

    I’ve known this for seven years.

    Most importantly for the employees, wellness incentivizes unhealthy habits

    and it exacerbates eating disorders.

    If anyone is interested, we’ll be doing a webinar on it 6/30. We dissect the abovementioned article and hilariously show how the industry fabricates outcomes that your company’s HR department falls for.

  2. June 21, 2021 at 6:13 am, Mary-Jo said:

    Of course, corporate wellness programs are more miss than hit. They are nothing more than expensive, glorified ineffective public health strategies. But, as a dietitian, I was really bothered by the diss to our profession implying that we are complicit in the scam! Often, BECAUSE healthcare systems are woefully inadequate in providing necessary care to people with obesity, actually just unfit in any way, from nutritional deficiencies, from stress-related eating disorders and other maladies and with lack of coverage for our services, we DO find ourselves getting involved in OTHER ways to educate and TRY to reach people to help improve their diets, nutrition, fitness, and ultimately health. It’s very frustrating when we continue to see healthcare letting people down, enabling inefficient, ineffective programs to take the place what COULD be delivered through HCPs in traditional healthcare settings — access to crucial care and treatments that could really make the difference in improving lifestyle habits and health outcomes in the population, getting MDs, nurses, pharmacists, RDNs, OTs, PTs, psychologists, wellness coaches all onboard, respecting and reimbursing their professional expertise.