UCLA Reveals Mental Health Improvements with Wellness

by Adam Siak
in Blog

Even the best designed wellness programs face the challenge in answering the simple question: is it working? Ostensibly, the response to this question would be framed in terms of employee health improvements. “Yes, our programs are working, our employees are losing weight, they are engaged in the programs, and they are more productive,” might be the answer from a manager. However, under the intensified scrutiny of a company executive, the response may be, “show me.” Executives want data to justify their investments. Improvements in biometrics and HRAs are one way to demonstrate data-based health improvements. Ultimately, executives would like to make the business case that investment in wellness initiatives lead to reduced healthcare spend and an improved bottom line. The thinking is simple: effective wellness programs improve behaviors, which improve health, which reduce spend (in medical and Rx claims). Except even the most effective wellness programs may struggle in making the ROI case as the reductions in spend may not be realized until years later. This difficulty is reflected by increasing skepticism over the years on whether wellness programs are “working,” whether they’re worth the investment.

UCLA Measures Mental Health

For wellness providers struggling to demonstrate improvements with the traditional analysis of tracked steps, program participation, biometrics, and HRA responses, perhaps if they tracked and presented additional data they would be able to communicate a more complete picture of program efficacy. For example, if you were able to present a program to an executive that produces demonstrable mental health improvements that result in a happier, more engaged, and more productive workforce, even the most skeptical CFO must consider the value. While these common sense benefits of wellness may be more difficult to measure and quantify, a recent wellness study by UCLA shows it’s not impossible - we just need to pay attention to it.

The study was conducted by UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, and researchers tracked 281 volunteer improvements over a 12-week fitness program. While the study is limited in its scope, it is the approach of a leading research institute focusing on mental health impacts while measuring wellness programs that is most insightful. The study tracked participant improvements using the Perceived Stress Scale before and after the 12-week program, and found “strong improvements across all domains of mental health with sizable effects.” This study highlights an important aspect of wellness that often gets overlooked: the intangible benefits gained from healthy behavior and activity. As UCLA researcher Dr. David Merrill emphasizes, “This was the first study of a workplace wellness program that showed a clear link between improvement in physical health and improvements in mental health, quality of life, stress, and energy.” Of course, a short term fitness challenge over 12 weeks may not extend to improvements in health outcomes over the long term. But for those of us who regularly exercise, the study confirms short term benefits that are intuitively understood: exercise (in addition to healthy diet and adequate sleep) makes us feel better, think better, communicate better. Reference another recent small study that took brain imaging of runners following a 10-day period without exercise, and after only 10 days, neuroimaging showed reduced cerebral blood flow and reduced activity in the hippocampus, a key brain area for memory formation.

Opportunity for Improvement

Further, given the ample evidence available on the effects of mental health, it would be foolish to ignore the economic impact. Research statistician Prabha Siddarth reiterates, “Mental illness accounts for more than half of all health care costs. This data strongly suggests that workplace wellness plans have a positive effect on people’s mental state of mind as well as their physical wellness.” Just to provide a couple examples supporting Ms. Siddarth’s statement, depression is both the leading cause of disability in the US for ages 15 and 44 and the source of $17-44 billion annual impact due to lost productivity.

Whether the cause is lack of awareness, susceptibility to stigma, or insufficient resources, ignoring the impact of mental health is simply bad business for employers. Whatever source you reference, the statistics are staggering and unambiguous. However, while mental illness is widespread and it’s costly, it’s also manageable and treatable. While research has shown that depression management programs over 2 years have led to improvements in productivity (8.2%) and absenteeism (28.4% reduction), the UCLA results provide confidence that improved mental health measures following wellness participation should similarly lead to improved employee productivity. The hope is that this initial study serves as a call to action for more comprehensive research focusing on the mental health benefits of wellness. The approach to measure wellness program impact for mental health improvements would provide wellness providers with more data and more opportunity to both establish more accurate population risk baselines and to demonstrate the positive impact of their programs on total employee health. ,


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