“More ambition” needed to improve workplace wellbeing, research suggests

cause and effect policy and interventions the future of wellbeing
  • Study of more than 46,000 UK workers found no evidence of improved workplace wellbeing after individual-level mental health interventions
  • Organisation-level changes are thought to play a greater role in improving wellbeing at work
  • Findings are published today (Wednesday) in the Industrial Relations Journal

UK employers need to show “more ambition” if workplace wellbeing initiatives are to make a lasting improvement to workers’ mental health, according to new research from the Wellbeing Research Centre.

A large-scale study of more than 46,000 UK workers, published today (Wednesday) in the Industrial Relations Journal, found no evidence that individual-level mental health interventions like mindfulness, resilience and stress management, relaxation classes, and wellbeing apps benefit employees.

But deeper organisational changes – such as flexibility of scheduling, management practices, staff resources, performance review, or job design – are likely to play a greater role in improving wellbeing at work.

Dr William Fleming, Research Fellow at the University of Oxford’s Wellbeing Research Centre and author of the study, said: “There’s growing consensus that organisations have to change the workplace and not just the worker.

“This research investigates wellbeing interventions across hundreds of workplaces, supplementing trials that often take place in single organisations, and the lack of any benefit suggests we need more ambition when it comes to improving employee wellbeing.

“I hope these results can spur on further research and employer action.”

Dr Fleming used survey data from 46,336 workers in 233 UK organisations to compare those who participated in workplace wellbeing interventions with those who did not.

Employees anonymously reported on various key indicators of workplace wellbeing such as job satisfaction and stress levels, as well as giving accounts of factors like a sense of belonging, organisational support and training opportunities.

It is thought to be the largest study of its kind to date, and the first to differentiate between multiple wellbeing interventions within the same sample by focusing on 11 popular practices that seek change in individuals’ behaviour and psychological resources.

Some interventions even showed a small but measurable negative impact on measures of employees’ wellbeing, though this is thought to be the result of selection effects, where those with lower mental health levels participate in programmes but do not receive the intended boost.

The study also offers additional insights because of the wide scope of the survey and diversity of participants, with the key findings holding true across different job levels, organisations, and even different industries.

Overall, the findings suggest that strategies focused on individuals do not provide the right support for workers.

Employee wellbeing outcomes from individual-level mental health interventions: Cross-sectional evidence from the UK’ is published in the Industrial Relations Journal.