NATIONAL REPORT — Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations have been ramping up workplace mental health benefits, but new findings show they are missing the mark.
In an assessment of 90 workplace interventions to improve well-being, William Fleming, PhD, a researcher at the Wellbeing Research Centre at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, found the success rates are dim, Fortune reported. As more people seek inclusive workplaces that support work-life balance, Fleming sought to understand how workers who partake in mental health interventions fare compared to those who opt-out.
"Across multiple subjective well-being indicators, participants appear no better off," Fleming concludes in his paper published in the "Industrial Relations Journal," noting that at least half of employers in the U.K. have official well-being strategies.
Workplace well-being, broadly defined, refers to how positive an employee feels in their job, which inevitably influences their sense of purpose, belonging and productivity.
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The study, which analyzed data from 46,336 workers across more than 230 companies, found nearly all interventions — including resilience training, access to sleep apps and online coaching — did not benefit employee well-being. One notable exception was volunteering, which positively correlated with improved workplace well-being.
Creating Care to Meet the Need
According to Ariela Safira, founder and CEO of Real, a mental wellness platform that has expanded to address workforce needs, benefits without intention don't solve mental health problems within the workplace. Agreeing with Fleming's conclusions, she pointed out, "It's the very reason why we set out to build an entirely new care model in the first place."
"When it comes to mental health, mental illness has been skyrocketing and yet, as an industry, we have barely skimmed the surface in terms of creating new forms of care to meet the need," Safira said. "As a result, people have been continuing to struggle, regardless of how many mental health benefits their employer offers them. This is hurting individuals and it's hurting workplaces."
Dr. Richard Safeer, the chief medical director of employee health and well-being at Johns Hopkins Medicine and author of "A Cure for the Common Company," notes well-being benefits can make a difference; however, it's not one-size-fits-all across companies.
"It's easy to put resources on the workplace mental health buffet, but like so many 'all you can eat' menus, the quality of what's served is not usually great," he said. "The workplace culture is complex and the expectation that simple solutions will prevail is naïve."
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While the pandemic underscored the need for human connection and community, Safeer noted more intentional innovation must go into how well-being benefits and programs are developed and integrated into the culture.
"Well-being is more than a program, prize or portal. Well-being requires the compilation of an intentionally crafted well-being culture, whereby every member of the organization plays a role not only in their own well-being, but also a role in supporting those with whom they work," said Safeer, who points to what makes a workplace psychologically safe. For example, beyond benefits, it's about fostering "human-centered leaders."
Well-Being Policies That Workers Want
What's more, if systemic changes propelling burnout and stress stay intact, benefits have little effect, Fortune reported.
A 2023 survey from Gallup and Bentley University found the three workplace policies workers say will help their well-being relate more to the structure of working than individualistic improvements. Topping the list were limiting work outside of typical hours, implementing a four-day workweek and incorporating mental health days.
Jennifer Moss, a workplace culture strategist, speaker and author of "The Burnout Epidemic," echoed this sentiment and said the root causes of poor well-being and chronic stress cannot be solved with only workplace mindfulness guides if staff are overworked and don't feel supported.
"When we aren't giving people space to focus on self-care then it just ends up being another task for employees to add into their already busy days," she commented. "Instead of trying to put bandaids on broken systems, let's transform the system instead. Instead of, 'How do we make people more resilient to the stress we've caused?' How about 'Let's figure out where our people are experiencing stress and eliminate that!' instead."
Moss suggests finding time in the workday to streamline when employees will have time to focus on their health. "We can start by reducing meeting fatigue and giving people the right to disconnect," she said.
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Safira, whose platform provides mental wellness support around the clock and aims to create mentally healthy workplaces by providing events, stories and engagement on wellness topics, said organizations should think outside of the box on what can serve people at work.
"We need to innovate new care models that speak to the individual needs of today's people and also to the unique needs of today's workplace," she explained. "We need care that prevents mental illness, that is available immediately (without a two-month waitlist), that is accessible and clinically effective for people of all races, that supports people at all hours of the day, and that on a community-level, builds more mentally well workplaces."
Johns Hopkins' Safeer added it is important to not lump all employers into the same category, which will simplify needed solutions. "Some organizations are taking meaningful steps to lay the foundation whereby the additional application of individual resources, such as trainings and well-being apps might prove helpful," he pointed out.
As Fortune noted, the study's data was collected between 2017 and 2018 from the BHQ survey before the pandemic, which has laid bare many workplace well-being problems in the age of a distributed workforce. The study also did not examine the specificity of the programs over the course of their duration, or how different programs can influence the outcomes for workers overtime.
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