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Workplace well-being initiatives don’t boost employee mental health


Well-being initiatives offered by employers generally don’t improve workers’ mental health, but volunteering may be the exception

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The well-being initiatives offered by many companies do little to boost their employees’ mental health, according to a survey of more than 46,000 workers.

In the UK, more than half of employers have adopted formal staff well-being strategies. These can include employee assistance programmes, which provide support on professional or personal issues, as well as counselling, online life coaching, mindfulness workshops and stress management training.

“Increasingly, employers have been offering various strategies, practices and programmes to improve well-being and mental health,” says William Fleming at the University of Oxford. “The basic aim of them is to change people’s psychological capacities and coping mechanisms,” he says.

To investigate whether these interventions are useful, Fleming analysed data from the Britain’s Healthiest Workplace survey, carried out in 2017 and 2018.

He looked at the responses from more than 46,000 individuals, the majority of whom were office and service industry workers, at 233 organisations. Around 5000 people reported taking part in at least one well-being initiative in the past year.

He found that there was no difference in the self-reported mental health of those who participated in these programmes compared with those who did not, either because they hadn’t been offered them or because they didn’t take their company up on the offer. This result was consistent across different types of workers and sectors.

“The programmes don’t seem to be bringing any benefits,” says Fleming.

An exception, however, may be volunteering. Employees who took part in volunteering programmes offered by their companies reported better mental health, on average, compared with those who did not. It is important to note, however, that people who are motivated enough to volunteer for a cause may have relatively good mental health in the first place, says Fleming.

Instead of offering these initiatives, Fleming suggests that employers focus on bettering the work environment. For example, they could assess whether someone’s workload is too taxing, if they are putting in too many hours or if management strategies could be improved, he says.

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