Conventional company wellness programs constitute an $8 billion industry, and “essentially every one of those dollars is wasted,” former Harvard economics instructor Alfred Lewis told local employers Thursday.
Such programs cost more than they save, he said, while needlessly subjecting employees to “prying, poking, prodding and punishing” as well as possibly unnecessary and expensive medical treatment.
Mr. Lewis is president of New York-based Quizzify, which bills itself as an alternative to the standard wellness programs that he said make claims that don’t add up. He was a keynote speaker at the Pittsburgh Business Group on Health’s 16th annual health care symposium Thursday at the Downtown Hyatt.
Mr. Lewis takes particular issue with weight-loss programs, which he said “don’t save money or reduce obesity.”
He recently co-authored an article in the American Journal of Managed Care that said “most corporate weight control programs fail” with “no reported savings, long-term weight loss or reduction in medical events” over two years when both non-participants and program dropouts are included. He argues that employers should disband company weight control programs.
The Wellness Council of America in Omaha, Neb., whose website calls it "the most respected resource for workplace wellness in America," did not respond Thursday afternoon to a request for comment on Mr. Lewis' remarks.
Company wellness programs have grown in popularity as employers look for ways to improve the health of their workers and reduce the company’s health care costs, which the latest Compensation Data Healthcare survey said accounted for 9.5 percent of total payroll costs nationally. The federal Affordable Care Act, in fact, includes incentives for companies to develop or build on existing wellness programs.
But the effectiveness of such programs is not clear.
A Rand study released in May estimated that about 80 percent of employers with more than 1,000 employees offer wellness programs, but concluded employee participation in lifestyle management programs “does not reduce healthcare utilization or cost.”
An earlier analysis by Rand estimated that participating in a wellness program over five years could save $157 annually, a difference the study said “is not statistically significant.”
Mr. Lewis’ pitch is to find ways to encourage employee health, such as providing healthy food in the cafeteria, helping pay for a gym membership or building a nearby bike trail. He cited a program set up by Google that offered free dance lessons to employees; classes filled up almost immediately, he said.
Rather than subjecting employees to blood screenings and “weight shaming,” he recommends that companies adopt fun, engaging programs in which workers will line up to participate.
“Do stuff that increases your morale.”
Steve Twedt: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1963.