Mind games: wellbeing programmes that do little for employees

New research from the University of Oxford indicates that corporate mental health interventions for individuals have little or no effect. Where do employers go next?

What are we to make of research which indicates that popular workplace wellbeing programmes have little effect and provide little benefit?

According to a study by University of Oxford researcher William Fleming, based on a sample of 46,000 workers in 233 UK organisations, mental health interventions by employers ‘are not providing additional or appropriate resources in response to job demands’. People who participated in company wellbeing programmes felt no better off than colleagues who did not. Some interventions like stress management even had a negative effect.

In a paper published in the Industrial Relations Journal (January 2024), Fleming – who is based in Oxford’s Wellbeing Research Centre – suggests that individual-level interventions might not be working because they don’t engage with working conditions in the work environment. These interventions for individuals include resilience training, online coaching, workplace apps, massages and mindfulness.

A wake-up call

On one level, we could argue that the research findings are a wake-up call for HR departments to work more closely with facilities, real estate and IT to create less stressful and more psychologically comfortable workplace experiences.

On another level, as the New York Times has been quick to point out, Fleming’s analysis suggests that employee mental health would be better served by focusing on ‘core organisational practices’ like pay, performance reviews and work schedules. Wellness should not be applied as a quick fix. As one leading industry figure famously told the WORKTECH New York conference, ‘Wellbeing is just the WD40 for failing company processes.’

Making employees ill

While the findings might come as a blow to the multi-billion-dollar corporate wellness industry, other academics claim to be unsurprised by them. Writing in The Guardian, André Spicer, professor of organisational behaviour at the Bayes Business School at City, University of London, observed: ‘While companies seem to excel at making their employees ill, the question remains about what they can do to help them feel better.’

According to Tony D. LaMontagne professor of work, health and wellbeing at Deakin University in Melbourne, ‘Employers want to be seen as doing something, but they don’t want to look closely and change the way work is organised.’

‘Employers don’t want to look closely and change the way work is organised.’

Other research appears to confirm some of what Fleming’s paper is saying. A US study of nearly 33,000 employees working over 160 sites of a large warehousing company also found lacklustre effects of a workplace wellbeing intervention.

Initially, employees in the study were 8.3 per cent more likely to say they engage in regular exercise and 13.6 per cent more likely to say they tried to manage their weight. But after 18 months, the researchers found there was no difference in physical health between those who received the wellbeing intervention and those who did not.

The wellness gloss

All of this suggests that a reset for health and wellbeing initiatives in the workplace could be on the cards in 2024. Empirical evidence points to a trend to bring less of a superficial gloss to wellness and adopt a deeper, more scientific and more fundamental approach towards making work better. This trend towards the ‘wellness gloss’ coming off the workplace is one of our central predictions in WORKTECH Academy’s new report, ‘The World of Work in 2024’. Read about this and other trends here.

Source: William Fleming. 2024. ‘Employee well-being outcomes from individual-level mental health interventions: Cross-sectional evidence from the United Kingdom’,  Industrial  Relations Journal (Wiley).

Jeremy Myerson is director of WORKTECH Academy and co-author of Unworking: The Reinvention of the Modern Office.
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