Bosses want you to be well – but they may be making you ill. To help improve employee health, companies are doing everything from helping workers to stop smoking, offering diet plans and health food, and introducing yoga and exercise sessions, to installing bicycle-powered desks, giving employees apps that track their movements and sleep, providing therapists, taking employees on outdoor adventures and much more.
Companies around the world spent $61.2bn on wellness interventions in 2021. That amount is projected to grow to $94.6bn in 2026. The problem is that most workplace wellbeing interventions cost money and take up time, but have little or no impact on employee wellbeing. In some cases, they may actually undermine workplace wellbeing. It turns out the most effective way to improve employee mental health is by reducing stress, rather than adding new ways to cope with it.
A new study by Oxford University’s William Fleming examines the impact of a wide range of workplace wellbeing interventions such as stress management and mindfulness classes, and wellbeing apps. It found that almost none of these interventions had any statistically significant impact on worker wellbeing or job satisfaction. They did not improve employees’ sense of belonging at work or reduce perceived time pressures. Nor did they make employees feel supported or improve workplace relationships. In some cases, wellbeing interventions seemed to make matters worse, the study suggested. For instance, workplace resilience and mindfulness training had a slightly negative impact on employees’ self-rated mental health.
The Oxford study is not alone in finding that workplace wellbeing initiatives have a modest impact. A US study of nearly 33,000 employees working over 160 sites of a large warehousing company found similarly lacklustre effects. The researchers ran a randomised control trial, with some employees being given a workplace wellbeing intervention while others were not. Employees who got the workplace wellness programme were 8.3% more likely to say they engage in regular exercise and 13.6% more likely to say they tried to manage their weight.
However, after 18 months the researchers found there was no difference in the clinical markers of physical health between those who received the wellbeing intervention and those who did not. There was also no significant difference in healthy behaviours, spending on healthcare, absenteeism, job tenure or job performance. When they returned three years after the intervention, they also found no difference in the levels of health between those who got the wellbeing intervention and those who did not.
The working practices of many organisations seem to actually discourage employee wellness. Stanford University’s Jeffrey Pfeffer was part of a team that looked at how many common workplace stressors drive ill health and even death. Drawing on the epidemiological evidence, they identified 10 of the most common workplace sources of stress including shift work, long working hours, job insecurity, conflicts between work and life, low job control, high work demands and lack of support. When they investigated the effect of these factors on the entire US population, they found that about 120,000 deaths a year may be attributable to these bad workplace practices. They also estimated that between 5% and 8% of healthcare spending in the US (or $175bn-$280bn) is driven by how companies manage their employees.
While companies seem to excel at making their employees ill, the question remains about what they can do to help them feel better. Fleming points out that it is possible to improve employee wellbeing by focusing on more structural aspects of work. These include improving pay, providing secure contracts, giving employees some flexibility and control over their work schedule, and providing opportunities for upskilling and mentoring.
Birkbeck’s Kevin Teoh and Rashi Dhensa-Kahlon looked at employee wellbeing interventions in the NHS and came to a remarkably similar conclusion. The most effective way to improve wellbeing in healthcare workplaces included cutting back pointless bureaucratic procedures, reducing the length of meetings, improving staff rotas and giving employees a sense of psychological safety in their team. My colleague Amanda Goodall has found one important way that organisations can improve wellbeing: improving the quality of frontline managers. Getting rid of David Brent-style bosses and giving managers proper training can significantly improve employee wellbeing.
Most workplaces are not temples of wellness. In some cases, they can be quite the opposite. What’s more, many of the interventions employers use routinely to supposedly improve employee wellbeing appear to make no difference – or in some cases, can even make things worse. The good news for leaders and employees is that we know what does work; instead of investing in ineffective initiatives, leaders should focus on taking away stressors. This means getting rid of unnecessarily complicated systems, poorly trained managers, and – in some cases – ineffective wellness interventions.