No Benefit Seen From Most Workplace Wellness Programs

Employees at many companies are urged to take advantage of free wellness programs focused on mindfulness, life coaching, better sleep and many other issues.

Too bad most won’t actually boost their well-being, a new study of over 46,000 British workers finds.

Only one of the 90 different workplace wellness offerings appeared to boost well-being: Getting employees involved in charity work or volunteering, the researchers found.

The findings “pose a challenge to the popularity and legitimacy of individual-level mental well-being interventions like mindfulness, resilience and stress management, relaxation classes and well-being apps,” concludes the study’s sole author, William Fleming. He’s a fellow at Oxford University’s Wellbeing Research Center.

Fleming’s research is based on data from the Britain’s Healthiest Workplace surveys for 2017 and 2018, representing workers at 233 different organizations.

He compared the survey answers of “matched pairs” of people who were working at the same company: One who was using a wellness program, and another who was not.

Because it is a survey, the data only focuses on worker well-being at a specific moment in time, not before and after the introduction of workplace wellness programs.

The main finding: With the exception of charity/volunteer programs, workers’ mental well-being didn’t seem to change regardless of whether or not they were involved in any of the many programs on offer.

Speaking with the New York Times, Fleming said he knew the findings would be “controversial.” He believes that if companies truly want workers to feel better, improving working conditions (factors such as schedules, pay and performance reviews) may be the best way to go.

“If employees do want access to mindfulness apps and sleep programs and well-being apps, there is not anything wrong with that,” he told the Times. “But if you’re seriously trying to drive employees’ well-being, then it has to be about working practices.”

However, others took issue with his research.

Adam Chekroud is an assistant professor of psychology at Yale University and co-founder of Spring Health, a platform that links employees with psychotherapy and online help with medications, to help boost mental health.

One 2022 study of Spring Health, involving 1,132 U.S. workers who used the service, found that most did see an easing of their depression. Days absent from work also lessened, and self-reports of workplace productivity rose.

Speaking to the Times, he said Fleming’s study focused on interventions that were “not highly credible,” so that it dismissed workplace wellness interventions overall.

“There is recent and highly credible data that things like mental health programs do improve all those metrics that he mentions,” Chekroud said. 

But another expert, Dr. David Crepaz-Keay, supported Fleming’s findings.

The study is “certainly more robust” than “most of the research that has created the consensus that employee assistance works,” Crepaz-Keay told the Times. He’s head of research and applied learning at the Mental Health Foundation in the United Kingdom, and has has advised the World Health Organization and Public Health England on initiatives aimed at boosting mental health.

Fleming’s study was published Jan. 10 in the Industrial Relations Journal.

More information

There’s advice on boosting your mental well-being at Mental Health America.

SOURCE: Industrial Relations Journal, Jan. 10, 2024; New York Times