8 Ways to Debunk Wellness and Health Promotion Research Papers

By Shawn Connors 

I just read a few workplace wellness and health promotion research papers. I don’t know why I do this. It gives me a splitting headache. Some wellness vendors obnoxiously wave the papers in your face like they’re the 10 Commandments. “OK, OK, I’ll read the things.”

In my high school days (not too long ago), I made a smart-ass comment to the physical education teacher (a former pro football player). I don’t advise doing that for amateur smart asses by the way. Anyway, he made me stay after school and write a 1,000-word essay on “the social life of a ping-pong ball.” In the middle of the essay I wrote, “This is a bunch of (!%*#.” I gave him the paper, was heading to the door, and he said, “Connors, next time don’t bury the headline in the middle of the paper.”

That’s what a lot of these research papers do – they bury the “you know what” in the middle.

You’ve got to read the whole boring mass of junk carefully.

Here are my “Crazy 8s” − just a small example of what runs through my bio-fueled, C+ grade brain when I read these things.

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1. A commercial vendor did the research: Come on, man! Are you kidding me? I don’t give any credibility to anything posing as objective research when the investigator has a direct economic bias. Even if the conclusions are correct, you’d have to corroborate those findings with more objective research to trust it. I am all for case studies and white papers, etc. That information doesn’t pose as hard science, and can often be helpful. Vendor-produced scientific research on their own programs is “contaminated.” As in useless. And scientific journal editors would be well advised not to publish that nonsense. I’ve still got that paper on the social life of a ping-pong ball if they’re hard up for some good content.

2. Extrapolates national health statistics: For example, xx% of the U.S. population is overweight, thus we did this study on XYZ population. But XYZ population may only have 2,000 people in it. I am not able to make the connection. It’s like someone coming to your front door and saying, “30% of the U.S. population is overweight, but we can get your family to ideal weight.” In other words, the claim is the vendors can create a competitive advantage by making your population healthier (and more productive) than the average, and probably the competition. If someone could actually do this, it would eventually be scaled up, and the vendor would rival Google in growth. The workplace wellness industry is tiny because we haven’t done anything in 30 years that is scalable.

3. Conclude consistency with national health statistics: After spending thousands of dollars studying the health status of a workplace population, the researchers say the populations’ collective health status mirrored national health statistics for this demographic. Ya think? You can ballpark the health status of almost any workplace population by just knowing the general age, gender mix, and type of industry. It ain’t science, but I’ll bet you can come within a few percent of their actual, collective health risk, in about 10 minutes. I grew up around insurance actuaries and underwriters (also athletes, entrepreneurs, revolutionaries, transients, dogs, comedians, and dreamers), and I can assure you they’re not using these wellness research papers to evaluate their risk in insuring a population. They’re using demographics, national-health statistics, and health-claims experience (which they know wellness programs have no material effect upon).

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