Work wellness programs have zero mental health benefits, study says

People who participate in work-led mindfulness trainings, apps and more see no benefit, according to Oxford University

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Employers sinking money into workplace wellness programs such as mindfulness training, on-site massages and meditation apps might want to think again because new research suggests the programs do absolutely nothing to buoy mental health.

People who take part in well-being programs aimed at teaching them how to firm up their mental health get zero benefits when compared to employees who don’t participate, according to an Oxford University study of more than 46,000 British employees at over 200 companies. The research, released Jan. 10, examined how workers’ well-being fared after participating — or not — in programs ranging from volunteering and charity work to mindfulness classes to apps promoting well-being and healthy sleep habits.

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Oxford researcher William Fleming then compiled data from employees across a wide range of industries and positions who had anonymously answered survey questions about their stress levels, job satisfaction and sense of belonging, among other indicators. “Across multiple subjective well-being indicators, participants appear no better off,” Fleming said in the report. “Results show that those who participate in individual-level interventions have the same levels of mental well-being as those who do not.”

The findings are the exact opposite of a narrative that has helped fuel the adoption of workplace wellness initiatives in the United Kingdom, Canada and beyond. “It’s a fairly controversial finding, that these very popular programs were not effective,” Fleming said in the New York Times.

Only one program appeared to boost mental health: volunteering. That could be because charity work helps give people a greater sense of purpose, which increases feelings of belonging, Fleming said. But even then, he sounded a note of caution. “The estimated effects are small, probably selection-biased and these initiatives would not engage with the job demands and resources central to theoretical and empirical understandings of work well-being.”

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The findings will no doubt concern some business leaders who’ve sunk large amounts of money and effort into wellness programs to stem increased mental health complaints among workers. Canada is in the midst of a mental health crisis, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) said, with more than one in two people experiencing a mental illness by the time they’re 40. Indeed, diagnoses have “significantly” grown over the past 10 years, with the pandemic exacerbating depression and anxiety, according to a recent Statistics Canada report.

The economic toll is also enormous. Poor mental well-being costs the country an estimated $51 billion a year in extra health-care costs, lost productivity and quality of life, CAMH estimates. The rising cost of living also hasn’t helped. As inflation increases the cost of food and high interest rates bring heftier mortgage payments, more Canadian workers say they’re under stress. The resulting “financial stress storm” has made people less productive and more prone to absences at work, according to the National Payroll Institute. That’s also expensive since the time people waste at work worrying about money adds up to around $45 billion a year in lost productivity.

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At the same time, employees have made it clear they expect their employers to help them manage their mental well-being. For example, three-quarters of Canadians believe workplaces should make their mental health a priority, according to a 2022 study by Capterra Inc. That’s left bosses with the difficult task of finding fixes that actually help people, while also stemming some of the balance-sheet bleeding.

But the Oxford study offers a possible solution for employers wondering what to do — and it’s not a companywide volunteering initiative. “There’s growing consensus that organizations have to change the workplace, not just the worker,” Fleming said.

There’s growing consensus that organizations have to change the workplace, not just the worker

William Fleming, Oxford University

Changing the workplace could involve improving flexibility, conducting performance reviews and making jobs better overall, Fleming said. For example, employers could ensure staffers aren’t saddled with too much work, allowing them to complete tasks on time while also eliminating useless time-management training. Some companies may also want to consider pay hikes, he said.

Not all employers are able to hand out raises, of course, but allowing flexible schedules could be a cost-effective fix. Plus, research shows it’s a key want of workers seeking to improve their well-being. As just one example, 81 per cent of Canadians cited a flexible schedule as the top mental health benefit their employer could offer, topping days off for self-care, professional counselling and wellness stipends, Capterra’s survey said. Along those same lines, studies show a four-day workweek brings improved employee satisfaction, happiness and productivity.

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Despite the Oxford study’s findings, some companies may be keen to hold onto the wellness initiatives they already have in place. That’s fine, Fleming said, but they’ll still need to make changes if they want mental health to improve. “If employees do want access to mindfulness apps and sleep programs and well-being apps, there is not anything wrong with that,” he said in the Times. “But if you’re seriously trying to drive employees’ well-being, then it has to be about working practices.”

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A version of this story was first published in the FP Work newsletter, a curated look at the changing world of work. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

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