Abstract: Employees’ Refusals to Participate in a University-Sponsored Wellness Program: Barriers and Benefits to Engagement

◆ Grace M. Hildenbrand, Purdue University
◆ Evan K. Perrault, Purdue University
◆ HeeJoon R. Rnoh, Purdue University

Workplace wellness programs are commonplace today to encourage employees to become healthier (Batorsky, Taylor, Huang, Liu, & Mattke, 2016). Such initiatives consist of activities such as health risk assessments, biometric screenings, smoking cessation, lifestyle coaching, or weight management programs (Claxton, Rae, Long, Damico, & Whitmore, 2018). Though many wellness programs use incentives to motivate employees to engage in healthy behavior, some employees still refuse to participate. One reason for lack of participation is privacy concerns, as workplace wellness programs collect personal health information (Madison, 2016). The present study seeks to understand why employees chose not to participate in a university-sponsored wellness program, and to determine whether perceptions of their own health, efficacy, and organizational resources to promote health vary based on wellness program participation. The current wellness program was initiated at a large Midwestern university in January 2018, giving benefits-eligible employees and spouses the opportunity to earn funds for a health savings account once they list a primary care provider, and complete a physical exam and biometric screening.
Survey data were collected from benefits-eligible employees in November 2018 (N=1,175). Employees were asked if they were a participant or nonparticipant in the wellness program. Those who did not participate completed an open-ended item asking them why they would not participate. All participants indicated their level of agreement with feeling they are in good health, could make better choices to be healthy, and if the university provides helpful resources to be healthy. To analyze the open-ended responses, a thematic analysis approach was utilized. Data were open-coded to identify emergent themes, and then a coding scheme was developed (Braun & Clarke, 2006). Two researchers conducted training, and then coded the responses independently (85-100% agreement) and met to resolve disagreements after each round until 100% agreement was obtained.
Results for why employees chose not to participate in a workplace wellness program indicated seven themes (n=297): privacy concerns (n=129, 43.43%), believing the program took too much time or effort (n=84, 28.28%), the program seeming unfair or not useful (n=61, 20.54%), believing they were already healthy (n=57, 19.19%), perceiving they were not eligible to participate (n=35, 11.78%), needing more information about the program (n=21, 7.07%), or feeling forced to participate (n=15, 5.05%). Results for employees’ perceptions indicated participants (M=5.56) and nonparticipants (M=5.54) had no significant difference in perceptions of their own health, with all perceiving they were healthy. Participants in the wellness program had higher perceptions they could make better choices to be healthy (M=5.12) than nonparticipants (M=4.53). Participants in the wellness program also had enhanced perceptions that the organization gave them useful resources to promote health (M=4.67) than nonparticipants (M=3.95).
These findings will allow employers to know how to market their workplace wellness programs to target employees who are reluctant to participate. Messages could be sent to employees addressing privacy, perceptions of health, and time and effort needed to participate. Such messaging may increase the likelihood of employees’ participation, which could save employees and employers money, and improve the health of all employees.