Popular workplace wellness offerings have little effect, Oxford study finds

Erica Carbajal Becker’s Hospital Review

Mindfulness apps, resilience training and other offerings that have become popular among employers over the past few years may not be the right approach to improving employee well-being, according to findings from a new survey led by a researcher at Oxford University.

The findings were published Jan. 10 in Industrial Relations Journal and are based on survey data from more than 46,000 workers across 233 organizations in the U.K. Financial and insurance service employees, younger workers and women were slightly overrepresented.

William Fleming, PhD, the study author and fellow at Oxford University’s Wellbeing Research Center, compared data from those who participate in workplace wellbeing intervention with those who did not. His analysis found that digital wellness solutions, massage classes, coaching and other interventions meant to support employees’ mental health and well-being had little to no effect.

“It’s a fairly controversial finding, that these very popular programs were not effective,” Dr. Fleming told The New York Times. “If employees do want access to mindfulness apps and sleep programs and well-being apps, there is not anything wrong with that … But if you’re seriously trying to drive employee well-being, then it has to be about workplace practices,” such as scheduling flexibility, management practices and staff resources.

There was one exception in the study: Volunteer work or charity opportunities were tied to improved well-being. Meanwhile, resilience and stress management programs appeared to have a negative effect.

Some outside researchers who offer well-being programs and spoke to the Times criticized the study for grouping different interventions into broad labels and not measuring participants’ experience over time. Dr. Fleming acknowledged there is body of evidence supporting some interventions, but said he has “never been as convinced by the very positive findings,” given data is often from controlled trials where interventions are implemented well, which may not be the case across organizations.