Background

Workplace Wellness in the United States

The rapid rise in health care spending over the past several decades has caused economists, policymakers, insurers, and employers to search for ways to improve health and reduce costs. Workplace wellness programs are one widely touted solution. They have become a $8 billion industry, are offered as an employee benefit by nearly all large firms, and are explicitly encouraged by the Affordable Care Act, which allows employers to financially reward participation in these programs.

Our study investigates whether the purported health benefits of these programs exist and characterizes who benefits from them. Beyond showing whether these programs work, our results will assist policymakers and firms in understanding their distributional effects. For example, if workplace wellness programs differentially attract healthy employees, then they could effectively shift costs onto less healthy, underserved employee populations, which may run counter to the intentions of policy.

To explore the inner workings of workplace wellness, we have implemented a randomized controlled trial at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Research Questions

Our collection of datasets, including University of Illinois administrative data, biometric measurements, and health insurance claims data, will allow us to look at workplace wellness in a way that has not yet been possible. Our main research questions include:

Methods

Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) are widely regarded as one of the most rigorous study designs in scientific research. Through random assignment of participants into treatment and control groups, researchers are able to isolate the causal effects of an intervention on a population. RCTs are designed to minimize biases and confounding factors, and, if properly executed, can provide strong evidence of an intervention's effectiveness.

Prior literature has noted that there is little rigorous evidence on the benefits of workplace wellness programs, and has emphasized the need for well-designed field experiments. Using an RCT to study workplace wellness is often not possible, primarily because the voluntary nature of these programs leads to non-random participation. While observational and quasi-experimental studies can offer some insight into the effectiveness of workplace wellness programs, they are less likely to provide a comprehensive analysis of selection and causal effects.

Illinois Workplace Wellness Study researchers were able to design and implement a workplace wellness program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This unique design allows the research team to have complete control over the components of the program, ensuring that it aligns with best practice standards for workplace wellness programs. Participants were randomly assigned to a control group or one of six treatment groups. Participants in the treatment groups were invited and incentivized to participate in a health screening, health risk assessment, and wellness activities.

Trial Registry

The Illinois Workplace Wellness Study is registered with the American Economic Review registry for randomized controlled trials at: https://www.socialscienceregistry.org/trials/1368