Workplace wellness programs are a hot topic these days—and a great opportunity for health and fitness professionals looking to expand their reach and their businesses. While some individuals and companies have begun to realize both the health and financial benefits of helping employees adopt healthier lifestyle habits, others remain on the fence about the value of these programs. The results of a new study, however, make a strong case for the power of workplace wellness programs to improve the health and well-being of employees by helping them lose weight. 

By providing healthier food choices and increasing opportunities for physical activity, workplace wellness programs can effectively help employees lose weight, especially if these efforts are designed with the input and active participation of employees. The two-year project—the results of which appear in the American Journal of Public Health—successfully reduced the number of people considered overweight or obese by almost 9 percent. 

The Study

Americans spend an average of one-third of their lives at work. Work-related stress, the sedentary nature of many office jobs and the temptation to dip into the bowl of candy on a coworker’s desk or raid the vending machine for a bag of chips can all contribute to weight gain. 

In recent years, many companies have established wellness programs in an effort to improve productivity, decrease absenteeism and reduce health insurance costs. Recent surveys by the Rand Corporation and the Kaiser Family Foundation estimate that as many as half of U.S. firms have wellness programs or incentivize healthy behavior. While studies have indicated that these programs can reduce employees’ health risk and potentially slow the growth of healthcare costs, the impact of these approaches on obesity rates has not been studied in depth.  

For this study, researchers at the University of Rochester Department of Public Health Sciences worked with a Rochester-based company with sites throughout the Northeastern United States. Ten different sites were randomized into two groups and the study examined a total of 3,799 individuals. The researchers worked with management and employees in the intervention group to establish workplace programs that focused on healthy eating and increasing physical activity. The control group did not receive any intervention.

Resources for Expanding Into Workplace Wellness 

Most American adults spend 40-plus hours per week at work, so the work environment is a fertile ground for wellness interventions. And there is an upside for employers to invest. Healthier employees have:

  • Lower absenteeism
  • Enhanced levels of engagement
  • Higher productivity 
  • Greater levels of job satisfaction

By contrast, less healthy employees raise employer healthcare and insurance costs. Furthermore, new provisions in the Affordable Care Act allow employers greater latitude to incentivize employees to work toward achieving a more optimal health status. The result is a growing list of reasons for employers to invest in workplace wellness, enhanced motivation for employees to participate and increased opportunities for health and fitness professionals looking to expand their businesses.

If you’re thinking about launching your own workplace wellness program, check out these great resources that can help you get started:

In each of the intervention sites, the researchers and the company established employee advisory boards to help them better understand the particular worksite’s culture and to determine which approaches would be appropriate and well received. The authors point to employee involvement as a key factor in driving broader participation.

Dietitians met with cafeteria managers to help them modify recipes so that the same meals could be prepared with fewer calories or in smaller portions. Employees who made healthy choices at the cafeteria or the vending machine were rewarded with free meals. They also organized workshops that shared healthy recipes for the home, especially before and during the holidays.

Physical-activity programs varied depending upon the worksite. Some sites marked out walking routes or organized walking clubs or other outdoor activities, such as Frisbee golf or bocce, during breaks. Locations with gym facilities were upgraded and staff held tours, promotions and competitions to encourage usage. 

To measure the effectiveness of these changes, the researchers measured the body mass index (BMI) of employees at the beginning and the end of the two-year program. BMI is a calculation that takes into account weight and height. A person with a BMI of more than 25 is considered to be overweight and a score of greater than 30 is considered obese. 

At the end of the study period, the number of employees in the control site who were considered overweight or to have obesity increased by about 5 percent, while the number in the intervention group had decreased by 4 percent resulting in a net difference of 9 percent. 

“Worksites are self-contained environments with established communication systems where interventions that modify food options and provide physical activity have the potential to reach large numbers of adults,” says Diana Fernandez, M.D., M.P.H., Ph.D., an associate professor in the University of Rochester Department of Public Health Sciences and lead author of the study. “This study shows in particular that when employees are empowered to help shape wellness programs, these programs appear to result in meaningful improvements in health.”

It is estimated that 68 percent of Americans are overweight or obese. Reducing obesity rates—through changing diets and increasing physical activity—is a key target for public health policy, as obesity places individuals at greater risk for conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

“This study suggests that worksite environmental interventions might be promising strategies for weight control at the population level,” said Fernandez. “These observations lend support to the approaches that might eventually reduce the incidence and prevalence of overweight and obesity on a larger scale.”