Written by: Bob Bertsch
A recently published study of workplace well-being interventions in Great Britain, including resilience training, mindfulness, and well-being apps, found no evidence that they improve individual well-being.
The study, conducted by William Fleming of the University of Oxford’s Wellbeing Research Centre, used survey data from more than 46,000 workers across more than 200 organizations to compare participants and nonparticipants in a variety of common, individual-level well-being interventions. The data showed that across multiple well-being indicators, participants in the interventions were no better off than non-participants.
These findings counter the results of previous studies that found stress management, resilience training, and mindfulness interventions to be generally effective. The findings also undermine the notion that individual-level well-being interventions are the most effective way to improve workplace well-being. There is disagreement over whether individual-level programs or organizational change is the best path to workplace well-being. Critics of individual-level interventions suggest companies choose them because they are easier to implement and evaluate than organizational change. These critics contend companies are putting the responsibility for workplace well-being on workers’ behavior rather than on working conditions, hours, and workload. As the Trade Union Congress put it, they are “changing the worker, and not the workplace” (2008).
Fleming’s study uses a much larger sample than most previous studies and includes respondents from many different organizations. Some previous studies were much more limited, focusing on well-being interventions in a single organization or industry. The breadth of the data Fleming uses in the study has both advantages and limitations. One limitation is that there is no way to account for the quality or efficacy of specific well-being interventions. The study found “no difference between participants and nonparticipants: relaxation practices, time management, coaching, financial well‐being programmes, well‐being apps, online coaching, sleep apps and sleep events,” but did not include data on whether one relaxation practice worked better than another or whether coaching worked better in one organization than others.
Fleming found that participants in resilience and stress management interventions had lower overall well-being outcomes than workers who had not participated in those types of programs. The study did find one type of intervention that benefited workers’ well-being, volunteering. Results suggested that volunteering supported a sense of belonging among participants and may indicate that social-level, rather than individual-level, interventions may be more effective.
Takeaways for Workers
- Don’t depend solely on workplace programs to support your well-being. Skills for time management, stress reduction, and mindfulness can be useful in your non-work life, not just in your work. Take the lead in developing your well-being.
- Use employee assistance programs (EAP) and counseling if your workplace offers them. The study discussed above only looked at preventive interventions, not EAPs or counseling which can help you manage specific challenges.
- Continue to advocate for organizational change in your workplace. Fleming’s study suggests that, overall, individual-level interventions are not effective. Organizational changes to expected workloads, time pressures, task complexity, or workplace culture, may be more effective in improving workers’ well-being.
Takeaways for Leaders
- If you are going to use individual-level interventions to improve workplace well-being, make sure they are supported by the existing research on resilience, stress, and behavior change. Also, consider whether interventions are relevant to the context of your workplace and the specific challenges your workers face.
- Given the positive correlation Fleming found between volunteering and well-being, consider interventions that acknowledge the social level of well-being.
- Don’t focus only on changing the worker and not the workplace. As noted in the Takeaways for Workers, changes to expected workloads, time pressures, task complexity, or workplace culture, may be more effective in improving workers’ well-being. Involving workers in discussions and decisions about workplace well-being can help identify organizational changes that can improve well-being and individual-level interventions that are well-suited to the specific pressures and challenges workers are facing.
Fleming, W. J. (2023). Employee well-being outcomes from individual-level mental health interventions: Cross-sectional evidence from the United Kingdom. Industrial Relations Journal. https://doi.org/10.1111/irj.12418
Trade Union Congress (TUC). (2018). Mental health and the workplace.