Companies offering wellness benefits like mindfulness classes, digital apps for fitness and nutrition, coaching programs and financial well-being courses may be surprised to learn their staff are saying that they are getting little to no benefit from them, according to new research.
Looking at over 40,000 survey responses from U.K. workers at over 200 companies, an Oxford researcher found workers who used those wellness offerings felt no different about their own health and well-being than those who didn’t use the services. The study excluded employee assistance programs and counseling interventions, but included all other types of coaching and programs intended to promote mentally and physically healthy lifestyles, at and outside of work.
Following the pandemic and heightened awareness around burnout, work-life balance, mental health and self-care, more employers have started offering such benefits and touting them to prospective employers on job ads and hiring sites.
Well-being washing is a concept identified in the corporate world where employers promote wellness benefits to new hires but neglect to make sure all their staff know they’re available. But these new findings go beyond that, suggesting even when staff are aware of certain offerings and choose to participate in them, they still aren’t helpful. In the U.S. nearly 40% of employers plan to increase spending on well-being programs in 2024, according to a report from NFP, an employer benefits firm.
The study also found classes on stress management and resilience actually had a slightly negative impact on workers who participated in them. One well-being program that did have a slightly positive impact on workers in the study was participating in charity and volunteer programs.
More companies have rolled out volunteer time off (VTO) which staff can use to do charity or volunteer work individually, said Sona Khosla, Benevity’s chief impact officer.
With the returns to office, employers have shown growing interest in location-based volunteering over the past year, or doing that work on-site as a group, she said. Doing something positive in a group environment can help with bonding and prove to be an effective team building exercise, she said. Group volunteer work can also help workers feel like they and their organizations are closer to and are having a larger impact on their communities.
“It becomes like this really big cultural moment, where it’s not just about coming to work and getting a paycheck, but having a greater sense of purpose,” Khosla said.
A lot of the stress and challenges workers face that impact their overall well-being, both at and outside of work, revolve around time and finances, Mark Debus, clinical manager of behavioral health at Sedgwick, a third-party claims administrator.
Employers can help them by offering greater flexibility as a well-being benefit, allowing staff more control over their time and thus alleviating some of that stress. That can include hybrid work options and more allowances for time-off when staff need to tend to responsibilities outside of work.
They also might consider using the money they’d put toward mindfulness apps and other programs to boost workers’ pay. Ultimately though each wellness initiative on its own is “only part of the puzzle,” Debus said. “Employers that focus on the bigger picture and look at the bigger stressors that their employees are facing are going to have a lot more success in addressing the overall mental wellness among your workforce,” he said.
Organizations should also properly get their employees’ opinions on different well-being initiatives to better gauge which ones are working and what employees really want at their specific organizations.
“What wellness will mean to me, might not mean the same for someone that is next to me as an employee,” said Lina Tonk, chief experience officer at isolved, HR software company.