Do office wellness programs work? New study suggests they don’t help staff

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The flow24h40Well-founded: Do office wellness programs actually work?

Midday yoga, mindfulness seminars and resilience training are just some of the ways large companies are trying to promote well-being in the workplace. But a British researcher says he has found “no evidence” that these programs actually help workers.

“(I found) no difference between those who participated in these types of initiatives and those who did not,” said William Fleming, author of a study published this month in Industrial Relations Journal and researcher at the Wellbeing Research Center at the University of Oxford.

Fleming examined data from 46,336 workers at 233 companies, collected as part of Britain’s Healthiest Workplace Survey in 2017 and 2018. These companies offered their employees a range of 90 different wellness programs, which Fleming said included “stress and resilience training, mindfulness, time management and to relaxation classes.”

Rather than tracking workers before and after a wellness program, Fleming created “pairs” of similar workers: one who had participated in a program, one who had not. The pairs consisted of workers from the same organizations, and their survey results indicated that they shared similar work environments and stressors.

The findings suggest that those who participated in wellness programs “did not appear better off” than those who did not.

An entire industry has grown around corporate wellness in recent years, as companies invest in programs aimed at improving employee well-being and perhaps increasing productivity. Research suggests that the company the wellness market in Canada was worth more than $3 billion in 2022while on a global scale it could become worth $120 billion by 2032.

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Examining “well-being”

Research on these programs has produced varied results. A 2019 study followed 33,000 workers at a US retail chain, who were offered in-person counseling on nutrition, physical activities and stress reduction. Medical tests carried out 18 months later showed no statistically significant change.

In contrast, a 2022 study looked at 1,132 U.S. workers with access to an employer-sponsored mental health program, including self-guided digital content and in-person psychotherapy. Over three years, more than two-thirds of workers showed a reduction in depression and anxiety. The study’s conclusion suggests that “an employer-sponsored workplace mental health program was associated with significant clinical effects for employees and a positive financial ROI (return on investment) for employers.”

Fleming told CBC Radio The flow that his own study led him to conclude that wellness initiatives often don’t address the root causes of workplace stress. He believes companies need to focus on things like compensation, workload and the autonomy employees have over how, when and where they work.

(He noted one exception: Employees cited wellness benefits when employers allowed volunteering during work hours, such as volunteer work or an activity like painting a community center.)

It creates this illusion: “Hey, everything we’re doing isn’t working. » But that’s not really accurate.-Bill Howatt

A few the researchers emphasized the study looks broadly at what is offered to workers and does not differentiate between different welfare programs and what they entail.

Critics also noted that subjects were surveyed at one point in time, rather than evaluating these programs over time.

Human resources expert Bill Howatt said many of the programs included in the study amount to “random acts of wellness” rather than more in-depth initiatives that include monitoring and evaluation.

“It creates this illusion that, ‘Hey, everything we’re doing isn’t working.’ “But that’s not really accurate. It’s not what we do, it’s how we do it that’s the problem,” said Howatt, founder of Howatt HR, an Ottawa-based human resources firm focused on psychological health and safety.

Howatt worries that organizations might look at the study and conclude that wellness programs are a waste of time, but argues that Fleming’s work could spark a conversation that more evidence is needed.

“It might spark curiosity to think that maybe we need to do more research into how these programs work,” he said.

“Not designed to be fair”

Chantaie Allick worked at a large Toronto tech company that offered several wellness programs, but says that as a black woman, she never felt like they were designed for people like her.

“I know other women of color who have kind of been hesitant (to participate), because we’re taught that you have to focus on your work, and you go to work to work,” Allick said , 38, who lives in Toronto. “In taking advantage of some of these programs, there is…guilt. There is a certain level of privilege that some people have and some people don’t.”

A woman stands in a bright white room, smiling at the camera.  She leans on a marble counter and there is a book and a vase on a shelf behind her.
Chantaie Allick worked at a large technology company that offered several wellness programs. But she says that as a black woman, she never felt like they were designed for people like her. (Ariane Laezza)

This hesitation was linked to feeling that Allick had to work twice as hard to succeed, but she believes being at an earlier stage in her career was also an obstacle. She remembers seeing more experienced employees take advantage of the programs offered, while younger employees had to stay focused on their work because they were trying to prove themselves and move up the ladder.

“It’s not designed to be fair from the start, let alone help people,” she said.

Howatt said organizations should engage diverse and marginalized demographics in wellness programs from the start. Initiatives should be designed through an intersectional perspective of “different filters (that people use) to interpret the world”, such as age, race, gender, neurodivergence and language proficiency, he said. -he declares.

Organizations could also adopt a “less is more” approach, he suggested.

“I come to a big organization and they have about 93 different programs. So no one knows about these programs because they haven’t had time (to investigate),” he said. “There are people who work during lunch.”

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These companies could benefit from focusing on certain key initiatives and ensuring employees know where and how to access them, he said.

Allick quit her job and took time to recover from the burnout she experienced in 2021. The following year, she co-founded Re-Work, an organization that helps people redefine their relationship with well-being. be in the office.

She said many companies present these programs as efforts to improve employee happiness, but “it’s almost always about productivity, it’s about offering things that will keep you in the office longer “.

Healthy results

A Deloitte Insights analysis published in 2019 found that companies with effective mental health programs created a return on investment (ROI) of CA$1.62 for every dollar spent. This performance is due to increased productivity, including fewer work days missed for mental health reasons, according to the study.

A woman stands against a blurred background.  She has her arms crossed and smiles at the camera.
Organizational psychologist Jennifer Dimoff said most companies she’s worked with are genuinely interested in improving employee well-being and aren’t just trying to check a box. (Melanie Provencher)

Organizational psychologist Jennifer Dimoff said ROI is one reason companies have jumped on the wellness bandwagon in recent years.

“It’s hard not to be cynical about the motivations of organizational leaders, but I think a lot of it has to do with a lack of understanding of fit,” said Dimoff, who teaches at the Telfer School of Management in the University of Ottawa. . “What business leaders might think employees need and what they actually need are two different things.”

Having worked with several organizations on their workplace issues, she said most are genuinely interested in improving employee wellbeing and are not just ticking a box. She thinks wellness programs can help.

Howatt thinks organizations should avoid what he calls “activities,” such as one-off seminars, and focus on initiatives that help employees adopt healthier habits.

He recommends what he calls a “plan, do, check, act” model. This approach involves planning an intervention based on the needs of the workforce; implement this program and ensure that it is accessible to all; check in with workers over time to see what effect this is having; and act on these results and adjust the intervention if necessary.

“When you’re trying to do these programs, it’s not just about giving people information, it’s about creating habits,” he said.

Allick said the most important thing an organization can do is “take the burden off the individual” and view mental health issues like burnout “as a systemic problem.”

“The companies that are going to win are the ones that actually make real structural changes and do the hard work,” she said.


Audio produced by Alison Masemann and Dawna Dingwall. This story is part of The Current’s new series Well Founded, which explores the wellness industry and how to make sense of all the arguments about how to become better.

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