There is no evidence that mindfulness and wellbeing apps improve employee wellbeing, according to a study from the University of Oxford published in the Industrial Relations Journal. Employees who participate in mindfulness or meditation courses provided by their employers generally do not experience better mental health compared to those who are not offered such programs.

In the United Kingdom, over half of employers have implemented formal staff well-being strategies, which may include employee assistance programs offering support for both professional and personal challenges, along with counselling, online life coaching, mindfulness workshops, and stress management or resilience training.

The University of Oxford conducted a comprehensive study involving 46,000 UK workers to explore the impact of individual-level mental health interventions on employee wellbeing. Lead investigator William Fleming analysed data from the Britain’s Healthiest Workplace survey conducted in 2017 and 2018 to assess the efficacy of these interventions. The findings indicate that commonly used methods such as mindfulness, resilience training, stress management, relaxation classes, and wellbeing apps lack evidence of improving employee wellbeing.

Fleming analysed responses from over 46,000 individuals, the majority of whom were office and service industry workers across 233 organisations. Approximately 5,000 individuals reported their participation in at least one well-being initiative within the past year.

He found that there was no difference in the self-reported mental health of those who participated in these programs 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 programs don’t seem to be bringing any benefits,” says Fleming.

Volunteering programs offered by companies were an exception, showing a positive impact on mental health. However, the study notes that volunteers may already have relatively good mental health.

The lack of benefit from individual-level interventions suggests a need for more ambitious efforts to improve employee wellbeing. The results are expected to encourage further research and action by employers.

Encouraging employers to develop their well-being initiatives, research lead William Fleming stressed the importance of broader changes. In an interview with HR magazine, he stated, “There’s a growing consensus that organisations have to change the workplace and not just the worker. We should focus on core working conditions and organisational practices, rather than trying to improve wellbeing in isolation.” Fleming outlined key areas, noting, “Evidence says we should focus on scheduling control, responsive management, fair performance review, working time, pay, contracts, skills training, and job and task redesign.

Highlighting the significance of addressing the root causes of stress, Fleming cautioned against ‘wellbeing washing’ in HR practices. He explained, “If these initiatives are offered with the intent of appearing to try and improve wellbeing or just taking the easy route, rather than actually and sincerely trying to improve employees, then it would qualify as wellbeing washing. To not fall foul of wellbeing washing, employers have to take seriously the root causes of stress or poor wellbeing, understand the jobs of their employees and recognise work and personal life conflicts.

Journal reference:

Fleming, W. J., et al. (2024) Employee well-being outcomes from individual-level mental health interventions: Cross-sectional evidence from the United Kingdom. Industrial Relations Journal. doi.org/10.1111/irj.12418.