Olly Headey

January 16, 2024

An old fashioned approach to employee wellbeing

Does your company run a “wellbeing week”? Do you run in-house relaxation classes, resilience training, or offer staff a free subscription to mindfulness apps?

Save your time. And your money.

A new study from William J. Fleming at the University of Oxford’s Wellbeing Research Centre has found little evidence that support any of these benefits. Fleming concludes: 

The results in this article pose a challenge to the popularity and legitimacy of individual- level mental well-being interventions like mindfulness, resilience and stress management, relaxation classes and well-being apps. I find little evidence in support of any benefits from these interventions with even some small indication of harm that would confirm fears from critics (e.g., Frayne, 2019; Lovejoy et al., 2021).

This doesn't surprise me. Jobs are stressful because of long hours, fragmented schedules chock-full of pointless meetings leaving you no time to actually think, incomprehensible and unfair performance evaluations, asshat managers and, of course, poor pay.

No amount of wellbeing assistance is going to solve these core problems. It's treating the symptom not the cause. 

People want to work for companies that do things right. People want to feel like they can contribute and make a difference. People want to have the agency to make decisions, however small. People want a culturally healthy workplace, with leaders who listen to staff and make improvements. People want to do a good day's work and feel they've accomplished something. People want to work with colleagues who are kind, who share the same sense of commitment and desire to produce great work. People want to go home (or leave the home office) without feeling like they've spent the day watching the clock or being ground down by corporate jobsworths (or both).

We've accepted that shiny offices with Playstations, bean bags and scatter cushions offer little benefit. There's nothing wrong with shiny office of course (I'm a big fan, if you can afford them) but they won't create a strong foundational workplace culture. If you haven't got your house in order, you're just painting over the cracks.

There's an interesting point at the end of the study:

Employee volunteering opportunities do offer one possible exception, but the estimated effects are small

Small, sure, but worthwhile nonetheless. As well as the obvious benefit it brings the organisation you're helping, volunteering days bring your people together away from the day job. The importance of this can't be overestimated. It's hard to make connections at work, even when you're racked together in an office. Getting your people together, even in small groups on a volunteering day, allows social bonds to form away from the gruesome corporate hierarchy in a way that no office party can ever do. If you're all remote, this is going to be more of a challenge, but you can tackle the social bonding problem by getting your people together semi-regularly. Maybe you could throw in some volunteering time at your next meet-up?

None of this is new is it? It's largely common sense. Having fair and transparent policies, doing right by people, trusting them with agency and asking them to work hard and be nice to people. It's the corporate equivalent of eating your greens and going easy on the booze and cake. You can sprinkle as many goji berries and flaxseeds onto your fish supper as you like but it's not going to make you healthy.

Reduce your corporate cholesterol. 


About Olly Headey

Journal of Olly Headey. Co-founder of FreeAgent. 37signals alumni. Photographer.
More at headey.net.