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NBGH: Wellness Programs Aim for the Wrong Target…And Miss

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The following is a guest post by George D. Burns. George is an employee benefits and tax Consultant who has developed the Burns ERP, which significantly reduces the costs of providing employee health benefits. He can be reached at  He is also a frequent Top Contributor to many LinkedIn groups and is a message board moderator at


The truth about wellness programs was revealed at the recent NBGH conference. Two studies in combination explain both that wellness fails and why wellness fails.

The first was a Towers Watson survey showing that wellness fails because employees don’t like it.  (In the wellness industry, this counts as an insight.)  In contrast to every other study showing high satisfaction among participants–who of course are largely “satisfied” by the money–this one surveyed all employees, not just participants. It showed that 52% of employees did not participate in even a single wellness program or activity. Employers offered a maximum of $880 but paid out an average of $365 with 40% of employees receiving $0.  “[Employees] feel like it’s too hard or not worth it, or that it adds unneeded complexity to their lives.” said Shelly Wolff, a consultant at Towers. “Whatever the reason, it’s a big disengagement number.”

The second, an employee poll at Bright Horizons LLC, showed why wellness fails.  Wellness programs have failed because they targeted the wrong goals with the result that — even if employees had been interested when cash was offered and even if the program had been successful — a conventional wellness program would have little impact on well-being.

Specifically, this employee poll showed that physical health, the highly profitable obsession of wellness vendors and consultants, counts for only 5% of employee well-being — far less than job satisfaction, stress, financial wellness and personal issues.

Further, “physical health” was a catch-all category including current acute issues such as colds and back pain, not just chronic major issues like diabetes or heart disease or “risk factors” that are the focus of wellness programs.  So even the 5% figure dramatically overstated the impact of risk factors on well-being.

So we’ve found two more reasons wellness vendors need to falsify their results to stay in business.  According to the Bright Horizons study, they are chasing the wrong goal to begin with…and according to TowersWatson, they are failing at chasing the wrong goal.

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One recalls the old Woody Allen joke about the two old ladies in the Catskills. One says, “You know, the food here is terrible.”  The other replies: “Yes, and the portions are so small.”


In the immortal words of the great philosopher Pat Benatar, hit me with your best shot.

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