Research suggests “more ambition” is needed to improve workplace wellbeing

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There is no evidence that individual-level mental health interventions such as mindfulness, resilience and stress management, relaxation classes, and wellbeing apps improve workplace wellbeing, according to recent research.

Instead, deeper organisational changes – such as flexibility of scheduling, management practices, staff resources, performance review, or job design – are likely to play a greater role in improving wellbeing at work.

“There’s growing consensus that organisations have to change the workplace and not just the worker,” said Dr William Fleming, Research Fellow at the University of Oxford’s Wellbeing Research Centre and author of the large-scale study of 46,336 workers in 233 UK organisations.

“This research investigates wellbeing interventions across hundreds of workplaces, supplementing trials that often take place in single organisations, and the lack of any benefit suggests we need more ambition when it comes to improving employee wellbeing.”

The research paper, Employee wellbeing outcomes from individual-level mental health interventions: Cross-sectional evidence from the UK, indicated no difference between participants and nonparticipants when it came to relaxation practices, time management, coaching, financial wellbeing programmes, wellbeing apps, online coaching, sleep apps and sleep events.

Participants in resilience and stress management training were also more likely to report unrealistic time pressures, according to the research paper, which said there are two possible explanations.

“First, this may be a selection effect, with a sense of unrealistic time pressure motivating participation. Such an explanation would again suggest a failure of these interventions to develop appropriate or adequate psychological resources consistent with job demands,” the research paper said.

“The second possible explanation offers bad news for managers hoping these initiatives will help workers better manage their demands, with results suggesting that interventions may make workers more aware of unrealistic time pressures, without being given the psychological tools to cope with them.

“These training programmes would then enhance workers’ skills in identifying job demands, without enhancing their ability to psychologically manage those demands.”

Some interventions even showed a small but measurable negative impact on measures of employees’ wellbeing, though this is thought to be the result of selection effects, where those with lower mental health levels participate in programmes but do not receive the intended boost.

Fleming said employers need to show “more ambition” if workplace wellbeing initiatives are to make a lasting improvement to workers’ mental health: “I hope these results can spur on further research and employer action,” he said.

Employees anonymously reported on various key indicators of workplace wellbeing such as job satisfaction and stress levels, as well as giving accounts of factors like a sense of belonging, organisational support and training opportunities.

It is thought to be the largest study of its kind to date, and the first to differentiate between multiple wellbeing interventions within the same sample by focusing on 11 popular practices that seek change in individuals’ behaviour and psychological resources.

The study also offers additional insights because of the wide scope of the survey and diversity of participants, with the key findings holding true across different job levels, organisations, and even different industries.

Overall, the findings suggest that strategies focused on individuals do not provide the right support for workers.