Would you be more likely to go rock-climbing if your company picked up part of the tab? 
Would you be more likely to go rock-climbing if your company picked up part of the tab?  - 
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Robert Granger stands on a thick, blue, padded mat and stares up a rock-climbing wall covered in rainbow-colored, hand-and-foot holds. It looks like like someone threw a handful of skittles at the wall and they stuck.

“It’s a really good place to unwind and think about something else,” he said, during breaks between ascents. “The nice thing is you have to use your mind, as well as body, doing this. It takes your mind off anything else.” 

Granger pays about $1,200 a year for his climbing membership at The Cliffs in Queens, New York. His company, Actualize Consulting, contributes $500, as part of its corporate wellness program.

It’s increasingly common for companies to fund programs to try to improve employees’ health. Corporate wellness spending climbed to $8 billion in 2016 – up from $1 billion in 2011, according to Damon Jones, a professor at The Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

Actualize spent $17,000 on employee wellness in 2017. In addition to its annual employee wellness allowance, it also runs month-long themed health challenges for employees a few times a year. “We're constantly looking and making sure that we have opportunities for our team members to live this healthy lifestyle,” said Kelly Wekelo, Actualize’s managing director of H.R. and operations.

More than 65 percent of employees participate in the quarterly challenges, which Wekelo thinks will help with team building and communication, as well as employee retention. The average employee tenure is eight years at Actualize.

“The goal [of corporate wellness programs] is to hopefully improve employees’ health, lower their health costs, and possibly increase their productivity,” said Professor Jones.

Listen to Marketplace Weekend's full episode on the business of wellness.

More structured programs might start with a health screening and risk assessment, then incentivize the employee to be healthier, perhaps by giving them rewards if they hit certain exercise goals.

Jones joined such a program when he was a postdoctoral student.

“My reason for signing up for a wellness program was that I had already been going to the gym, and I was happy to also be given a reward for doing so,” he said.

His own experience got Jones thinking – do these programs actually change employees’ behavior or mostly reward people like him for things they’re already doing? Fast forward a few years, and he created a study to find out. Participants at the University of Illinois were randomly assigned to a group that could opt into a wellness program or a control group that couldn’t.  

The first question: Who would join the wellness program when given the choice?

Those who opted in tended to be healthier to begin with, Jones said: “They're more likely to go to the gym or run in the local 10K or 5K or half marathon. They tend to be lower spenders in terms of health care.”

So given that self-selection, did joining a wellness program make a difference compared with the control group?

“We could see your health spending with your insurer, we could see how many times you went to the gym, and then we also had a survey where we asked people about their health,” Jones said. “We measured almost 40 outcomes, and we mostly didn't find any difference between those two groups.”

At least in the short term, the idea that these wellness programs might change employee behavior or cut their healthcare spending didn’t pan out.

But Jones said the study did find one positive – people were more likely to say that their manager or their employer cared about their health and safety.

That’s something Actualize’s Robert Granger said about his employer.

He’d go to the climbing gym whether or not Actualize chipped in for it, but the fact that the company does makes him feel it’s invested in his health. 

Follow Tracey Samuelson at @tdsamuelson