The Role of Federal Funding

Panelists pointed to low levels of dedicated federal research funding for high-quality workplace health research in the United States. Although U.S. adults spend most of their waking hours at work, the workplace setting is understudied and underfunded compared to other settings such as health care organizations and communities. According to one estimate, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) spent a scant 2% of its prevention research budget between 2010-2012 on funding human behavioral research in workplace settings.1 By comparison, approximately 31% was spent on research in health care organizations and 8% in community settings excluding workplaces during the same period.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) received $335 million in the 2018 Omnibus spending bill to fund workplace health research largely focused on occupational safety and health (OSH).2 In 2016, NIOSH funded six Centers of Excellence for its concept of Total Worker Health,3 which it defines as “policies, programs and practices that integrate protection from work-related safety and health hazards with promotion of injury and illness prevention efforts to advance worker well-being.” Approximately $6.3 million dollars were allocated to these Centers over 5 years (January 14, 2019; email correspondence, Office of the Director, Total Worker Health).

There are several reasons that could account for the low priority given by federal research funding organizations to workplace health research, including:

  • Federal research agencies may believe that it is the responsibility of employers to fund workplace research
  • Clinical research conducted in workplaces is difficult to translate to real-life settings
  • The majority of National Institutes of Health funding is initiated by researchers and scores high during peer-review, which may account for the relatively low proportions of workplace-related mental health studies
  • Some question whether randomized controlled trials are the best study design for workplace settings that have interactions across multiple levels
  • Certain populations may be perceived as lower priority in funding decisions

Since federal research agencies do not adequately fund workplace health research, businesses often fund their own research, which has led to variability in the quality, amount and types of programs studied. For example, published studies are in larger organizations, which limits the application of the results for small and medium-sized companies.

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The practical implications for employers is that they can consider advocating for increased federal funding for workplace health research and may even fund their own well-designed studies in partnership with academic institutions.


  1. Calitz C., Pollack K. M., Millard C., & Yach D. (2015). National Institutes of Health Funding for Behavioral Interventions to Prevent Chronic Diseases. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 48(4), 462-471. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2014.10.015. Retrieved from
  2. Diamond D. (2018). What’s in the omnibus for health care. Retrieved from
  3. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. (2018). What is Total Worker Health? Retrieved from