The Mixed Evidence on Workplace Wellness Programs

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Arthur/Adobe Stock

Arthur/Adobe Stock

In addition to traditional benefits, such as health care coverage and 401(k) plans, employers across the globe are increasingly offering programs designed to boost employees’ mental health—free massages, mindfulness classes, online wellness apps, and more.

A new, large study conducted by a British researcher from the University of Oxford and published in the Industrial Relations Journal this month evaluated the results of 90 different employee wellness interventions to find out if they work. On the whole, he found they do not.

The study used data from Britain’s Healthiest Workplace survey, which was given to workers at 233 organizations in 2017 and 2018. It did not track well-being before and after a wellness intervention but instead reported well-being measures for employees who participated in wellness programs and their colleagues in the same organizations who did not.

It’s possible that the employees who chose to participate in the programs were less well to begin with. To account for this in the study, the researcher separately analyzed answers from employees who reported high stress levels and compared the results between those who participated in wellness programs and those who did not. Even with this analysis, he found no benefit to the interventions.

An interesting side note, the study did find one type of program that did significantly boost well-being: volunteering. The data showed that employees given the opportunity to volunteer through their workplace reported an increased sense of purpose, accomplishment, social resources, and recovery.

On the whole, the results from this study conflict with previous research establishing that workplace wellness programs are effective, including various systematic reviews, like this one and this one. For example, a 2022 study published in the Journal Network Open Journal found that workplace mental health programs reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety for nearly 70 percent of participants. The study followed more than 1,100 employees at 66 U.S. workplaces across the country for six months. Those who used the program also missed fewer days of work and reported higher productivity.

What’s going on here?

The answer is likely in the details. The latest study from Oxford evaluated a wide variety of wellness programs and combined them into broad groups, and many required less employee engagement on the whole. (For example, a mindfulness app requires less interaction than in-person therapy.) It also did not track employee wellness over time to look for improvements among individuals.

Conversely, the 2022 study evaluated a program that connected employees to therapy and medication management—an intervention that may be more effective than services like massages or online apps. And it followed participants before their treatment and for six months afterward.

The take-home message: There is conflicting evidence about the effectiveness of workplace wellness programs. The true answer might lie in the type of wellness program that is offered.

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