Workplace wellness programs aim to improve employee health and lower employer’s health care costs, but not all programs have the same impact or cost the same.
[Photo: Dr. Phaedra Corso]
Much of a program’s success — and whether it was worth an employer’s investment — depends on how it’s delivered, according to a new study from the University of Georgia.
Many employers want their employees to be healthier because employee health can impact the financial bottom line, said Dr. Phaedra Corso, director of the Economic Evaluation Research Group at the University of Georgia College of Public Health and lead author.
“When you have unhealthy workers, they may incur greater healthcare costs, and they may use more sick days or may come to work but not be able to work at the productivity level that they would ordinarily,” she said. “The only way you’re going to get hold of these healthcare costs is for us to start intervening on the prevention side of health, not just providing benefits on the treatment side.”
Dr. Corso and her team collaborated with colleagues in the college’s Workplace Health Group to implement and evaluate a new weight loss program called Fuel Your Life. The program was adapted from a successful community-based program developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which emphasized the use of health coaches.
Fuel Your Life offered two methods of health coaching, in a group setting and over the phone. A third control group completed a self-study of the program’s educational workbook.
All participants lost weight, but those who received one-on-one coaching over the phone lost more. Yet, phone coaching was also more expensive, said Dr. Corso. From a cost effectiveness perspective, no one intervention type stood out from another.
That’s why Dr. Corso wanted to measure more than weight loss. The participants also completed surveys describing how they felt about their health and wellbeing. The team then calculated the cost per quality-adjusted life year, or QALY, for each intervention type.
“The QALY measure is something that we typically use in health care where we’re looking at an intervention’s impact on health-related quality of life and life expectancy,” said Dr. Corso, and it often captures impacts of an intervention that go beyond weight loss.
This second measure showed that participants who had group coaching lost less weight compared to the phone coaching, but gained more in terms of quality of life.
For employers considering the Fuel Your Life program, the analysis suggests group coaching delivers more overall health benefits, said Dr. Corso, but it’s up to individual employers to decide whether improvements to mental wellbeing and quality of life are as important as weight loss.
“If you have a workplace intervention that’s impacting how you feel about your job and how you feel about your co-workers, that’s a good thing,” said Dr. Corso. “That, to me, is the more exciting finding.”
The study, “Cost Effectiveness of a Weight Management Program Implemented in the Worksite: Translation of Fuel Your Life,” was published in the Journal of Environment and Occupational Medicine.
Co-authors include Justin Ingels, Heather Padilla, Heather Zuercher, David DeJoy and Mark Wilson from UGA’s College of Public Health and Robert Vandenberg from UGA’s Terry College of Business.