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Trends in corporate wellness programs

In a bid to encourage healthier lifestyles, decrease worker absenteeism and reduce healthcare-related costs, an increasing number of companies are adopting corporate wellness programs such as healthy meal plans and weight loss competitions for employees, the Boston Globe reports.

However, methods for measuring the success of wellness programs in terms of saving money and improving health are lacking across the board. A recent report by the National Institute for Health Care Management found that much of the existing research on the subject is being funded by companies that design the programs.

According to Harvard School of Public Health professor Katherine Baicker, it is difficult to directly compare the success of one employer's program to another's due to variables in the types of programs offered. The fact that corporate wellness program failures are usually not publicized further complicates matters.

Baicker and her colleagues analyzed more than 100 studies of such programs and selected 22 that offered specific cost and absenteeism measurements. They found that the average decrease in employers' medical costs was approximately $3.27 per dollar invested in health and wellness programs, and absenteeism costs decreased by approximately $2.73 per dollar spent.

Employers were found to be most likely to focus on weight loss, quitting smoking, lowering blood pressure and increasing exercise. They offered workers a variety of incentives such as monetary prizes, gift cards and paid time off, sometimes for meeting specific health goals and other times for simply participating in the program.

For example, the winners of the city of Weatherford, Texas' third annual biggest loser contest received a $300 cash prize and one day off with pay, the Weatherford Democrat reports.

Other companies, such as Massachusetts-based Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, also offer stress-reducing activities such as meditation sessions, sleep seminars, personal finance management classes and an organic gardening club.

According to Judith Frampton, vice president of medical management at Harvard Pilgrim, companies that mainly focus on decreasing healthcare costs are only addressing the cause of approximately a quarter of their total health-related expenditures. The other three-quarters are caused by absenteeism or presenteeism, the term for when employees are at work but not performing at optimal productivity levels due to sickness or stress.

Harvard Pilgrim has reported saving more than $2 in costs related to medical expenses and lost productivity for every dollar spent on implementing wellness reduction programs, according to the Boston Globe.