Making wellbeing work - why well-intended workplace interventions can go wrong

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett January 23, 2024
Summary:
A recent Oxford University study reveals that, despite their popularity, individually-focused workplace wellbeing interventions, such as relaxation and sleep apps, don’t work. So what’s the alternative?

wellbeing

To truly make a difference to workforce wellbeing, tech employers need to change their organizational culture, experts believe. This includes not working people as hard as they do currently and ensuring they feel a sense of purpose. 

Pervasive but “simplistic” solutions, such as relaxation classes, sleep and meditation apps, simply do not cut it. In fact, a recent study by Oxford University researcher, William Fleming indicates there is “little evidence” to show that such popular and widespread individually-focused mental health interventions offer any workplace benefits whatsoever. He explains:

The main reasons these interventions aren’t effective is that they’re personal management techniques that aren’t tailored to the demands being placed on you. So, for example, if you’re in a highly stressful job like healthcare and you’re offered self-help advice, such as breathing exercises, it’s not going to be enough. You have to get to the specific root causes of the problem, which could include staffing issues. Generic solutions won’t work.

Dr Alexandra Dobra-Kiel, Innovation and Strategy Director at behavioural consultancy Behave, agrees:

Why people have mental health issues in the workplace is complex. But there’s an increasing tendency to refuse to acknowledge complexity and go for a simplistic approach. Given how little we know of how the brain works, it’s ambitious to think simplistic solutions, such as wellbeing apps, would tackle root causes and have an impact. 

The wellbeing interventions that work - and don’t

But there are other issues to consider too. As Dobra-Kiel says:

Organizations are sets of individuals and places where individuals have a sense of belonging. So, targeting individuals puts organizations at risk of prioritizing an individualistic approach rather than encouraging community and team spirit. But it’s really about root causes. Everyone says they’re ‘too busy’ these days as they have an ‘audit mindset’ to justify what they’ve been doing – in other words, not being idle. The problem is that when you continually move from action to action, you lose the ability to stop and ponder how to tackle things in the most effective way.

Some interventions are worse than others though, Fleming warns. Employee volunteering activities, for instance, can potentially offer some “small” benefits to employees. This is because they contribute to a sense of purpose and belonging as well help people develop additional skills.

Activities, such as resilience and stress management training, on the other hand, can actually do employees harm. This, says Dobra-Kiel, is because:

If you say to someone ‘training x will help you build resilience’, it feels like your failure if it doesn’t work, like it’s entirely on you. But the issue is that resilience isn’t easy to build, and you certainly can’t do it in a couple of sessions. The reason you may not be resilient isn’t just about work - it involves your personal life too. So, it’s your history of personal experiences that make you more, or less, resilient and most training doesn’t cover those interconnections. 

Dealing with the symptoms

As to why individual-focused interventions are popular with so many employers, Fleming points to the number of vendors promoting products and services in this space - the market is expected to be worth $109.4 billion by 2030. This results in many employers thinking of them “as an appropriate response”. But he says:

I’m sure there are circumstances where these kinds of interventions have been offered as band-aid solutions because getting to the root cause of problems takes a lot more work and is a lot more difficult. Some may just hope they’ll work, or they may know they won’t but want to give the impression they’re doing their best even if they’re not sincere. It really depends on the organization.

Dobra-Kiel, however, believes the problem goes back to employers taking a simplistic approach and adopting a tick box-based “audit mentality”. This means they fail to “think outside the box” or properly evaluate whether their interventions work as they simply benchmark themselves against, and copy, each other’s accepted practices.

But a more effective way of doing things, she says, is to “ditch” individual-level interventions that only deal with symptoms and evaluate wider organizational culture issues instead. She explains:

It’s not about a total cultural overhaul, which is difficult to achieve. It’s more about creating a coherent culture, which involves communicating the organization’s purpose and values clearly and ensuring employees live by them. The coherence piece is paramount.

Another important consideration is ensuring that the organization is clear about its priorities, Dobra-Kiel says:

Many companies hedge their bets by trying to do everything, and lots of chief executives struggle to identify their priorities. This means the organization is constantly shifting its priorities and no one knows what to focus on. So, it’s crucial that everyone is clear – it starts with the CEO and the C-suite but has to be translated to all other levels too. Humans have a huge need for control. But if priorities change too often, those feelings of control are eroded, and if we don’t see the results of our actions, it can be quite disenfranchising. It also erodes mental wellbeing and can lead to burnout.

Tackling root causes

A further point that should not be overlooked though is the role of the manager, points out Nick Pahl, Chief Executive of the Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM):

The manager’s role is to support workers, help them feel in control and facilitate a sense of autonomy. So, if a manager helps and supports you when you’re having a difficult time and gives you time off if you need it, that’s one of the most effective interventions you can have. 

But it is also vital that leaders “think strategically” and evaluate wellbeing issues in a systemic way, he adds:

“important to explore the real reasons behind why the workforce is anxious and stressed. We at SOM get very frustrated with ‘wellbeing washing’. One investment bank we know, for example, told us it’s investing a lot on wellbeing, but, at the same time, it’s also working its people to death so they’re burned out by their late 30s.

One way to help prevent this kind of burnout is to design jobs that are human-centred and realistic in terms of workload. Another is to ensure staffing levels are adequate. Further considerations include providing staff with more control over their work schedules, increasing employee voice opportunities, and offering more learning and development openings. As Fleming says:

Employers need to do some hard thinking here. But they also need to collect the right data by undertaking stress audits to understand what’s making people feel stressed in the first place. It’s about working with employees to identify problems and come up with the best solutions, which also helps with decision-making. It’s important to reflect on the best resources to help rather than just offering a one-off training course. More ambition and bravery are needed.

My take

As Dobra-Kiel says, quick fixes really aren’t going to cut it in an area as complex as employee mental health and wellbeing. So, if employers really want to make a difference here, they simply have to do the (cultural) work.

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