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Are we wasting time on workplace wellbeing?

Are workplace wellbeing programmes as successful as anecdotal evidence suggests? New research indicates that organisations may need to be more experimental and practical in their approach to employee health

The focus on health and wellbeing of employees in the workplace has increased in recent years, with many employers looking to enhance their employees’ health in anticipation of various benefits. These can include improved productivity, lower healthcare costs, reduced absenteeism and many others.

Such programmes have often been declared as a boon to employees, while the more cynical observers might consider them a way of reducing employer costs while at the same time providing something that appears to be a benefit for workers. But the question remains: are they effective in their stated goals, or are workplace wellbeing programmes a waste of time and effort?

A boost for talent attraction

Numerous articles and anecdotes have promoted wellbeing programmes. We often hear of companies that have experienced a broad range of benefits from their wellbeing activities. They are frequently happy to talk to the press about them for the good publicity and the boost to talent attraction; after all, wellbeing projects the image of a company that cares for and values its employees.

There has even been scientific research on the benefits of employee wellbeing programmes, with some studies calculating the return on investment that can be achieved through lower healthcare and absenteeism costs. However, there is at least one key issue that most of these studies miss out: self-selection bias.

Is bias obscuring the results?

Self-selection bias is a bias that arises when individual participants in a sample select themselves for inclusion in one group or another; in this case, taking part or not taking part in a wellness programme. This bias makes it more difficult to determine the cause of any differences between groups. Workplace wellbeing programmes are generally optional, and we have all met the kind of person who is likely to be more interested and involved: the person who already cycles to work, already goes to the gym every other day, already ensures they eat healthily and doesn’t smoke. This means that a lot of the wellbeing programmes are inadvertently benefiting the people who are already healthy rather than the people they would benefit most.

Rethinking the evidence

More recently, researchers have begun to unpick this relationship to ascertain what causal effect wellbeing programmes have. In new research published this year, a team from the National Bureau of Economic Research investigated the benefits of workplace wellbeing programmes with a critical difference: participants were randomly assigned to a group rather than relying on self-selection. This eliminates the selection bias inherent in most designs and can truly elucidate the mechanisms behind the outcome of wellbeing programmes.

The researchers randomly assigned over 12,000 participants to either a workplace wellness programme or a group with no intervention. Across 39 outcomes measured, the intervention group had only improved on two relative to the control group: the likelihood to have received a health screening and the belief that the employer places a priority on worker health and safety. Workers in the wellness programme were no more likely to stay in their job, take fewer sick days or spend less on medical treatment than those in the control group. They also did not show any improvement in health behaviours like using the gym.

Base efforts on what works

This is the first randomised and controlled study that has been conducted on workplace wellbeing programmes and its negative results cast them in a new light. There was no evidence for savings or for health effects, which are supposed to be two of the major selling points of having a workplace wellness programme. So what is the answer? Should companies not bother having wellness programmes?

Ideally, no. Companies should continue in their efforts to improve the health of their employees; they should aim to be more experimental though and base their efforts on evidence of what works. They should also work to weave health and wellbeing into the physical fabric of buildings and the cultural fabric of the organisation.

Health and wellbeing should be a foundational principle of companies rather than an after-thought tacked up retrospectively and only addressed through poorly understood and often ineffective interventions.

Arraz Makhzani is a workplace analyst at UnWork