Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Oxford Study Finds Workplace Wellness Programs Do Diddly Squat For Mental Health

depressed man at the kitchen table, sad, stressed

In “Employee well-being outcomes from individual-level mental health interventions: Cross-sectional evidence from the United Kingdom” published in Industrial Relations Journal, wellbeing enthusiast and researcher Dr. William Fleming has found that wellness programs in the workplace don’t actually improve employee wellbeing. Which confirms what we’ve all known for a while now, these programs are a mostly performative gesture to make leadership feel better about themselves. So at least someone’s mental health is getting a boost.

First off, we feel compelled to point out how utterly cool this guy is. That is not sarcasm.

very few men can successfully pull off the multi-cartilage piercing look this well

As you can see from the screenshot above, his whole thing is wellbeing.

Here’s the abstract of the study which was based on survey data from 46,336 workers in 233 organizations in the UK:

Initiatives that promote mental well-being are formally recommended for all British workers, with many practices targeting change in individual workers’ resources. While the existing evidence is generally positive about these interventions, disagreement is increasing because of concerns that individual-level interventions do not engage with working conditions. Contributing to the debate, this article uses survey data (N = 46,336 workers in 233 organisations) to compare participants and nonparticipants in a range of common individual-level well-being interventions, including resilience training, mindfulness and well-being apps. Across multiple subjective well-being indicators, participants appear no better off. Results are interpreted through the job demands–resources theory and selection bias in cross-sectional results is interrogated. Overall, results suggest interventions are not providing additional or appropriate resources in response to job demands.

In other words, wellness programs don’t “undo” the damage of a stressful work environment. So what does? The existing evidence base suggests organization-level initiatives such as improvements in scheduling, management practices, staff resources, or tailored job design would be a good place to start.

A 2019 Harvard Business Review piece makes an important distinction between employee wellness and business benefit. Naturally, happy workers make for a better workplace — “Healthier people. Better business.” is the tagline of one service selling psychiatry services, coaching, and mindfulness to employers — but is on-site yoga helping the employee?

Wrote Charlotte Lieberman in HBR:

From coal mines to conference rooms, employers’ motivation is simple: keep workers healthy, keep company costs down.

But just because these programs can be positive for business outcomes doesn’t mean their primary purpose is to improve employees’ daily lives. For prospective hires, five-star Glassdoor reviews mentioning perks like free kale salads and onsite massages stand out like glittering constellations. But for employees, these benefits can feel like a tacit transaction. Ben, a designer and programmer I interviewed who has bipolar disorder, works at a company that offers a vast array of wellness benefits like culinary events (including fresh arepas!) and weekly afternoon yoga. “Company bulletins emphasize that these things are intended to offset work stress, and at the same time obliquely reinforce the idea that work stress is the inherent byproduct of being good at what you do and working hard at it,” he told me. “These things are often pitched as indulgent bribes to make up for the demanding expectations.”

She then says, skeptically:

I am personally not convinced that lunchtime yoga and mason jars of trail mix are the antidote to our global epidemic of workplace stress and burnout. For all the attention (and money spent) on workplace wellness, the jury is still out on whether these programs are really beneficial to our health. A recent study examining over 30,000 employees at a U.S. warehouse found that those exposed to a workplace wellness program reported no significant differences in absenteeism, healthcare spending, or job performance than those who were not — though they did report greater rates of some positive health behaviors, like engaging in regular exercise.

150 push-ups and 1,200 sit-ups a day is a good place to start.

Said Dr. Fleming of his research, “There’s growing consensus that organizations have to change the workplace and not just the worker. This research investigates well-being interventions across hundreds of workplaces, supplementing trials that often take place in single organizations, and the lack of any benefit suggests we need more ambition when it comes to improving employee well-being. I hope these results can spur on further research and employer action.”

Read more: Study finds no evidence that individual-level mental health interventions improve employees’ well-being []