What Your CEO Is Reading: Are Workplace Well-being Programs A Waste?

The efficacy of workplace well-being programs has been thrust into the spotlight due to a new study focused on mental health interventions. The study offers a reminder about the importance of creating a comprehensive approach to mental health that incorporates routine evaluation of the services offered.


January 19, 2024

This week, The New York Times reported findings from a study published in the Industrial Relations Journal under the headline “Workplace Wellness Programs Have Little Benefit, Study Finds”. The subject of the Times article was narrower in focus than the headline suggests and centered on a cross-sectional study that analyzed the effect of more than 90 different mental well-being interventions among 46,336 workers in the United Kingdom at 233 organizations. The study found that “those who participate in individual-level interventions have the same levels of mental well-being as those who do not.” Notably, the one exception was that interventions focused on volunteering were associated with a positive impact on employee well-being. Based on these findings, the Times indicated that the author of the study, William J. Fleming, suggested employers focus on “core organizational practices” to improve employee well-being.

Findings from this study were also picked up by Fortune and may appear in media outlets across the U.S. and around the world in the weeks to come.

Why Your CEO May Care

Your CEO may want to know how your organization’s mental health interventions compare to those highlighted in the study. They may also have questions about the investment your company is making in mental health initiatives, including their impact on employee well-being, as well as other business outcomes.

The interventions included in the recent study were designed to promote positive mental well-being and focused on a broad array of topics, including mindfulness, resilience, relaxation, stress management, time management, sleep, financial well-being and volunteerism. The interventions were conducted through a range of formats, including classes, programs, training, coaching, apps and events. Since the study focused on positive psychological well-being, the interventions did not include those intended to treat mental health conditions, such as Employee Assistance Programs or counseling. The effect of these interventions was assessed by asking employees to indicate if their employer offered any of the programs listed, if they participated in any of them over the past 12 months, and assessing employee well-being across a range of outcomes, including mental well-being, life and job satisfaction, work engagement and belonging, among others.

Since the interventions described above are commonly offered by large employers, there are several considerations that employers may want to account for when reviewing and discussing the study results. First, as was pointed out in The New York Times, the data used in the study reflects mental well-being at a single point in time instead of longitudinal data that may show a change over a defined period. Second, the study author acknowledges that the findings “are counter to much of the existing narrative in empirical literature and policy discourse.” Indeed, The New York Times alluded to evidence supporting the positive effects of mindfulness training, and a research review conducted by the World Health Organization of interventions intended to build stress management skills (e.g., mindfulness programs, cognitive behavioral therapy, positive psychology programs or “happiness programs”) found evidence to show that these approaches did promote positive mental health, reduce emotional distress and improve work effectiveness. While the evidence of the impact was low certainty (meaning the researchers are not confident in the effect), the WHO points out that employees value these programs, particularly when they are offered alongside organizational interventions. Finally, because organizations provide numerous mental health programs and benefits to assist employees along a spectrum of needs – and the research on some of these interventions has demonstrated inconsistent results across studies – employers would be well-suited to assess the effectiveness of their offerings based on their employee population and organizational goals.

What Employers Can Do

Given that 74% of employers plan to expand their focus on mental health in the next 3-5 years according to the 14th Annual Employer-Sponsored Health and Well-being Survey, the recent study offers a reminder about the importance of creating a comprehensive and cohesive approach to mental health that incorporates thorough due diligence during the initial and ongoing evaluations of the services offered. Employers may consider the following when crafting a mental health strategy designed for maximum impact.

  • Assess and address how organizational factors impact employee mental health and well-being. Benefits and programs alone are insufficient to effectively improve mental health because workplace structures and practices can have a positive or negative impact on employee well-being. Thus, as was suggested by the study author, organizational factors must be incorporated into an employer’s mental health strategy. Benefits and well-being leaders are well-positioned to influence workplace structures and practices through things like identifying the factors that affect employee mental health, creating cultural change by creating top-down and bottom-up support for well-being, and influencing work/life balance and flexibility.
  • Embrace a multi-pillar approach to mental health. Focusing on the organizational factors that impact employee mental health is one pillar of a comprehensive mental health strategy. This pillar must work in concert with two other aligned pillars: initiatives to promote mental health (the singular focus of the recent study) and benefits and programs to treat mental health conditions and substance use disorders. None of these pillars should exist in a vacuum and must integrate with one another, which may require partnerships across the organization.
  • Commit current and future vendor partners to standards of excellence. A rigorous assessment of prospective vendors for evidence-based practices and an assessment of existing partners on the real-world effectiveness of their offerings is critical to protecting employers’ investment in mental health benefits and programs. As a part of their efforts to hold partners to the highest standards, employers should press mental health and substance use disorder vendors for quality and outcomes data beyond basic utilization and assessment trends. Benefits and well-being leaders should also be clear about their expectations with vendors and hold them accountable for their delivery.
  • Assess the value of benefits and programs beyond well-being. As was demonstrated in the study findings, mental health interventions can positively affect work engagement. Based on the broader value that health and well-being initiatives may offer, employers should consider other potential metrics important to the organization to incorporate into their evaluation of programs and benefits.
  • Integrate well-being interventions for a more holistic employee experience. Provide multiple and integrated avenues for plan members to access quality mental health care. Combining mental health programs and services with initiatives focused on other dimensions of well-being (social connectedness, financial security, physical health, job satisfaction, community) can create a more impactful and holistic experience for employees. Offering a diverse range of opportunities for employees to interact with mental health interventions also recognizes the individuality of employees and their diverse set of needs.

Business Group on Health Resources to Support Your Mental Health Strategy

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  1. Why Your CEO May Care
  2. What Employers Can Do
  3. Business Group on Health Resources to Support Your Mental Health Strategy