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Second Opinion: Some Employee Wellness Programs Don't Work, Here's Why

Last week, the New York Times resurrected a debate that continues to yield dissenting opinions with the article “Employee Wellness Programs Yield Little Benefit, Study Shows.” It’s an important discussion as employers continue to invest in wellness as a key benefit for their employees. But it’s also important to separate the fact from fiction related to employee wellness programs.

Angie Kalousek


  1. Wellness programs should save money. While many employers implement wellness programs with the belief that costs will be reduced, the fact is the vast majority of healthcare interventions don’t save money. However, they do improve health and quality of life which is the proper success measure for a well-designed, cost-effective lifestyle medicine program.
  2. Getting employees to identify risk through Health Risk Assessments and Biometric Screenings is a wellness program. A program that consists of these tools is not a wellness program – it is a risk identification program. These can cost a lot of money and by themselves will not improve the health of the participant. 
  3. Incentives will help drive return on investment (ROI) by encouraging engagement. Incentives do exactly the opposite of drive ROI. Instead, they drive up costs that will be impossible to recoup. Even if they do get people to participate, the participation is hollow because you’re creating an action for the sole purpose of earning the incentive.  This is not the behavior change needed to improve health and create a more productive workforce.
  4. Wellness programs will deliver outcomes in 1 year … or even 3 years. Most wellness programs are not designed this way. They usually target general behavior such as eating more veggies or increasing levels of physical activity. These are great habits to form in the long run, and may prevent eventual disease, but without targeted and personalized lifestyle interventions, they’ll do little to drive concrete outcomes such as decreased blood pressure or lowered blood sugars.


  1. “Lifestyle medicine” programs can improve health. By introducing and reinforcing healthy behaviors, participants can become healthier. That means they have more energy every day, sleep better, feel stronger and may even drop a few pounds. This result is what we should strive for, leading to healthy and happy employees.
  2. Well-designed lifestyle medicine programs can deliver outcomes. To meet this criteria, lifestyle programs must be personalized, curated and clinically proven. The intervention required for one person may be completely different from another – and why wouldn’t it be? We all are unique in terms of our health needs and goals. For example, a generally healthy individual may need a little nudge in improving sleep or increasing physical activity, whereas a diabetic needs a multi-dimensional plan with personal support. If we design our programs this way, we can experience the lifestyle driven outcomes that we all seek.
  3. Incentives should be used minimally, sparingly or better yet, not at all. Incentives denigrate the intrinsic benefits of adopting a healthier lifestyle by distracting people into focusing on the “prize” rather than the true value. Not only are they impossible to recoup through a return on the investment, they are actually irrelevant, distracting and potentially against the law. 

At Blue Shield of California, we want a better approach to improve the health of our members through lifestyle. We believe that “wellness” is a thing of the past, and instead, “lifestyle” is a form of medicine that has the power to not only prevent, but treat and reverse disease. To that end, we are launching the Wellvolution Next platform for our commercial population later this year. 

The platform delivers a personalized, curated and clinically proven path for each member to improve their health – all at no additional cost to the member. We are delivering lifestyle medicine programs not only to provide well-being support to the generally healthy population, but also targeted condition management programs to people with hypertension and diabetes.  It is this approach, across the whole health spectrum, that will lead to effective and sustainable lifestyle interventions.

Angie Kalousek is director of markets, lifestyle medicine for Blue Shield of California. She oversees the sales and marketing of clinically proven lifestyle medicine programs for Blue Shield of California’s members.