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Corporate Wellness Programs May Be Missing the Mark
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Corporate Wellness Programs May Be Missing the Mark

In a controversial take, an Oxford researcher finds that offering wellness apps has almost zero impact on the modern workforce

Employers who are investing in corporate wellness programs could use their resources in a more productive and meaningful way, according to new research based on a University of Oxford study.

The study, authored by William J. Fleming, a researcher on work and well-being, illustrates that while mental well-being initiatives are widely recommended for British workers, disagreement is brewing over concerns that “individual-level interventions” don’t engage with working conditions.

Although supportive wellness programs have become a buzzy, feel-good ad campaign for employers to showcase across social media, individual-led wellness programs can’t fundamentally address or, better yet, fix an unhealthy and stressful working environment, the study suggests.

Using a survey of 46,000-plus workers in over 230 organizations, Fleming reviewed the outcomes of participants with access to resilience training, mindfulness and well-being apps and those without, finding that participants appeared “no better off” than non-participants. 

“Overall, results suggest interventions are not providing additional or appropriate resources in response to job demands,” found Fleming.

What the Study Could Mean

Despite the grim findings, employee volunteering opportunities pose a glimmer of hope — although Fleming acknowledges the estimated effects are minimal.

He also notes that future research should pinpoint if individual-led interventions are effective alongside organizational change or whether improving working conditions would be a better alternative. 

“A combination of approaches could benefit workers by, if implemented well, enhancing job resources whilst also mitigating job demands,” he wrote.

Ultimately, Fleming says it seems “premature” to recommend widespread individual-led interventions to all workers and that organizational-led interventions (changes to scheduling, management practices, staff resources, performance review) appear “more beneficial” for improving well-being. 

In a post on LinkedIn, Fleming summed up the breadth of his research quite succinctly: “We’ve got to focus on improving work, not addressing well-being individually and in isolation.”

It should be noted that Fleming didn’t discredit the effectiveness of health and well-being apps and programs — but they can’t course-correct the challenges that many employees face within their organization, he said. A nutrition and sleep-tracking app may have benefits but can’t solve the stress of working long hours or counteract issues stemming from poor management, for example.

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Corporate Wellness Is Still Hot

Setting aside the recent research from Oxford, one can argue that the overarching issue is that workplace stress and dissatisfaction are at an all-time high, especially as many employers are warning of layoffs and, in recent months, have demanded staff to return to in-person work. 

Lifesum, a global healthy eating platform serving GE, Google and Amazon employees, recently revealed that Gen Z and millennial staffers are experiencing high levels of work-related stress that interfere with their personal lives. Such experiences can have a significant financial impact on the part of employers should staffers look for the nearest exit in favor of a new job.

Corporate wellness giant Gympass has also been sounding the alarm on the debate between in-person, hybrid or fully remote work, finding that the topic is causing a growing workplace conflict that affects employee performance. In a report that examined workplace well-being and return-to-office mandates, Gympass found that location flexibility is crucial to keeping staff engaged and aligns with wellness. 

“Location flexibility — where possible — may be the best approach to supporting worker wellness,” Gympass found. “Workers in their preferred environment, for example, are more likely to say their work enables them to care for their well-being when needed.

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