Workplace wellness programmes: a waste of time and money?

Global corporate industry is booming but positive impact on staff well-being is debatable

Office fun
In the UK more than half of employers have adopted formal staff well-being strategies
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The global corporate wellness industry was worth $53 billion (£41 billion) last year – but the true value of workplace well-being initiatives is harder to quantify. 

A report published this week by Emergen Research showed that annual company spending on wellness has skyrocketed from $8 billion (£6 billion) in 2016, before the Covid-19 pandemic upended well-being and workplaces alike. Most is spent on health risk assessment, thanks to the rising prevalence of chronic disease, but a growing chunk goes on mental health support programmes such as stress management courses. Rising rates of anxiety and depression, as well as longer working hours and greater workloads, were "key factors" driving the increase, said the report, as well as the increased focus on well-being.

Mental health initiatives have become "a point of pride for forward-thinking human resource departments", said The New York Times (NYT), with companies investing "in the hopes of saving money overall". The so-called "Great Resignation" in the wake of the pandemic forced many employers to refocus on mental health benefits, said Forbes. In the UK, more than half of employers have adopted formal staff well-being strategies. But according to a landmark British study, published last week in the Industrial Relations Journal, they're not actually working.

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'It has to be about working practices'

Researchers at Oxford University's Wellbeing Research Centre analysed data from the Britain's Healthiest Workplace survey from 2017 and 2018, and looked at responses from more than 46,000 people at 233 companies. Of the 5,000 who tried at least one of 90 well-being initiatives and mental health programmes, none reported any benefit. 

"It's a fairly controversial finding," said William Fleming, author of the study. Employers would do better to focus on "core organisational practices" than wellness initiatives, he said, including pay and performance reviews and greater flexibility.

There is "nothing wrong" with mindfulness apps and sleep programmes for employees, he noted. "But if you're seriously trying to drive employees' well-being, then it has to be about working practices."

The study found that programmes such as stress management courses did in fact have a negative effect on employees' mental health. The most effective way to improve employee mental health "is by reducing stress", noted André Spicer in The Guardian, "rather than adding new ways to cope with it".

The working practices of many companies "seem to actually discourage employee wellness", wrote Spicer, who is professor of organisational behaviour at the Bayes Business School at City, University of London.

'A positive return on investment'

An exception, however, may be volunteering. The Oxford study found that employees who took part in volunteering and charity work offered by their companies reported better mental health, on average, compared with those who did not. However, said New Scientist, "people who are motivated enough to volunteer for a cause may have relatively good mental health in the first place".

But there is plenty of evidence to show that mindfulness training can be effective in reducing anxiety and depression.

A study published by the Jama Network in 2022 tracked US workers who used a platform that connected them with external mental health services like therapy, before and after the pandemic. 

Nearly 70% of participants "reported reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety", said the authors. The programme "provided a positive return on investment for all salaries above the federal minimum wage", as employees missed fewer days of work. The results show that "evidence-based workplace mental health programmes can be beneficial for both employers and employees", they concluded. 

A blanket dismissal of workplace interventions therefore risks "throwing the baby out with the bathwater", Adam Chekroud, co-founder of the platform Spring Health, told the NYT.

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