It’s Time to Rethink the Benchmarks of Health Behavior

Employer wellness programs are supposed to lower health care costs, but many are failing because they are targeting the wrong benchmarks. To create lasting change, wellness programs must combine data insights with practical steps.

Benefits managers spent nearly $ 50 billion in 2019 on employee wellness programs, which are largely seen as a brake on skyrocketing healthcare costs. While the programs have shown some success in getting employees to exercise more and control their weight, recent studies have found that many do not have a significant impact on important measures of success, such as lowering cholesterol, reducing health care spending, less absenteeism, or improving job performance.

The wrong benchmarks to define and track success. Many focus on surface metrics, such as regular weigh-ins or calorie counts, which by themselves do not indicate a significant change in behavior. They also often rely on incentives, which tend to be fleeting and ineffective in the long run.

The best measures of a successful program, experts say, are new behaviors that employees learn and repeat on their own, between visits with a coach or caregiver. Research on health behavior shows that those habits, along with personalized goals and action plans to achieve those goals, are more likely to lead to desired results.

“When we think about clinical outcomes, there are clear goals or benchmarks to look for in terms of what the science says,” says Stephanie Fitzpatrick, principal investigator at the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research.

Below, we present three areas (participation, monitoring, and outcomes) where existing measures of health behavior are insufficient and how evidence-based benchmarks defined by behavioral research can lead to increased health behavior success.