Employee mental health services have become a billion-dollar industry. New recruits, once they find the restroom and enroll in 401(k) plans, are presented with an array of digital wellness solutions, mindfulness seminars, massage classes, workshops resilience training, coaching sessions and sleep apps.

These programs are a source of pride for forward-thinking human resources departments, proof that employers care about their workers. But a British researcher who analyzed responses to a survey of 46,336 workers at companies offering such programs found that people who participated were no better off than their colleagues who did not participate.

THE studypublished this month in Industrial Relations Journal, examined the results of 90 different interventions and found just one notable exception: Workers who were given the opportunity to do charitable or volunteer work appeared to have improved well-being.

Among the large population studied, none of the other offerings (apps, coaching, relaxation classes, time management or financial health classes) had a positive effect. Training on resilience and stress management does indeed seem to have a negative effect.

“It’s quite a controversial conclusion that these very popular programs were not effective,” said William J. Fleming, the study’s author and a researcher at the Wellbeing Research Center at the University of Oxford.

Dr. Fleming’s analysis suggests that employers concerned about workers’ mental health would be better off focusing on “core organizational practices” like scheduling, compensation and performance reviews.

“If employees want to access mindfulness apps, sleep programs and wellness apps, there’s nothing wrong with that,” he said. “But if you’re serious about trying to improve employee wellbeing, then you need to focus on working practices.”

Dr Fleming’s study is based on responses to the UK’s Healthiest Workplaces Survey conducted in 2017 and 2018 among workers from 233 organisations, financial services and insurance workers, young workers and women being slightly overrepresented.

Workers captured data at a single point in time, rather than tracking it before and after processing. Using thousands of matched pairs from the same workplace, the study compared well-being measures of workers who participated in wellness programs with those of their colleagues who did not.

It’s possible that there was selection bias, since workers who enroll in, say, a resilience training program may have lower well-being to begin with, Dr. Fleming said. To address this issue, he analyzed the responses of workers with pre-existing levels of job stress separately, comparing those who participated and those who did not. But among this group as well, survey responses suggest the programs provide no clear benefits.

The results call into question practices that have become commonplace in all employment sectors. But the researchers said this was no surprise.

“Employers want to be seen as doing something, but they don’t want to look closely and change the way work is organized,” said Tony D. LaMontagne, professor of work, health and wellness at Deakin University in Melbourne. Australia, which did not participate in the study.

Workplace mental health interventions can send the message: “If you’re doing these programs and you’re still feeling stressed, it must be you,” LaMontagne said. “People who don’t have a critical eye might internalize this failure: ‘So I’m really a loser.'”

The corporate wellness services sector has exploded in recent years, with thousands of sellers competing for billions of dollars in revenue. Companies invest in these interventions in hopes of saving money overall by improving worker health and productivity.

Some research supports this expectation. By 2022 study Tracking of 1,132 workers in the United States who used Spring Health, a platform that connects employees with mental health services like therapy and medication management, found that 69.3% of participants showed improvement in their depression. Participants also missed fewer days of work and reported higher productivity.

Adam Chekroud, co-founder of Spring Health and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale, said Dr. Fleming’s study examined “low-credibility” interventions and measured well-being several months later. A blanket rejection of workplace interventions risks “throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” he said.

“There is recent, highly credible data that things like mental health programs improve all of the metrics he mentions,” Dr. Chekroud said. “This is the baby you shouldn’t throw away.”

There is also strong evidence that practices such as mindfulness can have a positive effect. Controlled studies have consistently demonstrated less stress and decreased anxiety and depression after mindfulness training.

The poor benefits Dr Fleming found may reflect variations in offerings, said Larissa Bartlett, a University of Tasmania researcher who has designed and taught mindfulness programs. “Light” interventions like apps, she added, are generally less effective than individual or group training.

Dr. Fleming’s study, she said, “misses most of these details, condensing intervention types into broad labels, engagement into yes/no, and dismissing intervention participant reports according to which they felt they had benefited from the programs they followed. »

A key omission, she added, is longitudinal data showing whether participants see improvement over time. The result is a “big picture” of participants’ well-being that “takes into account changes that may occur at the individual level,” she said.

Dr Fleming said he was aware of the body of research supporting the effectiveness of the treatments, but had “never been more convinced by the very positive results”, since the data comes from controlled trials in which the treatment is very well implemented. , which may not be the case in programs offered by employers.

Dr David Crepaz-Keay, head of research and applied learning at the Mental Health Foundation in the UK, who has advised the World Health Organization and Public Health England on mental health initiatives, described Dr. Fleming’s data and analysis as “certainly more robust” than “much of the research that has created the consensus that employee assistance works.”

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