Wellbeing programmes have no short-term impact on employee health, study finds

‘Bolt-on’ initiatives unlikely to return significant results without factoring in organisational culture

Workplace wellness programmes that focus on employee health, exercise and productivity have almost no detectable effects on clinical measures of health, a major study has found, with experts saying employers must focus on broader organisational culture. 

Researchers from Harvard Medical School observed a test group of more than 4,000 employees across 20 different work sites to explore the impact of wellness programmes in their workplace. 

In the study, Effect of a Workplace Wellness Program on Employee Health and Economic Outcomes, participants were given learning modules on how to eat well, exercise and reduce stress, which was supported by experts and wellness providers over the course of 18 months. The impact of the programme was then compared to data from 33,000 employees across the US to measure its effectiveness. 

At the end of the trial period, participants reported increased levels of exercise and weight loss, but no notable improvements in 80 other areas, including quality of sleep, food choices or economic outcomes for employers, such as a fall in the number of sick days taken.  

“Our findings show that health behaviours can respond to a workplace wellness programme, but they also temper expectations of realising large returns on investment in the short term,” said Dr Zirui Song, health policy researcher and lead author of the study. 

Commenting on the findings, Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, said organisations looking to benefit from wellbeing programmes should strategically align initiatives with broader workplace culture if they wanted them to be effective. 

“Employers who invest in wellbeing need to look at their broader organisational culture first, including leadership, values, and how managers are developed and supported to manage people in the right way. Wellbeing should support this, but if it’s just treated as a bolt-on it wouldn’t be surprising for interventions to be ineffective,” he said. 

“We have seen an increase in work intensity, certainly in the UK, and health and safety data shows an increase in the number of working days lost to stress, anxiety and depression – so anything that deals with physical wellbeing must be placed in that context of broader organisational culture.” 

A study from the Trade Union Congress (TUC) released earlier this week found UK employees worked an average of 42 hours a week last year, almost two more than the average EU employee, while the latest CIPD Health and Wellbeing at Work report found management style was increasingly blamed for stress-related absence at work. 

“A lot of companies have introduced mental health first aiders and mindfulness at lunchtime, and are buying into the ‘wellness’ culture, but this isn’t really wellbeing,” said CIPD president Professor Sir Cary Cooper, who described the Harvard research as ‘unsurprising’. 

“These strategies only focus on the individual – it’s important to include individuals, but unless you change the broader working culture you can’t transfer the individual strategies back into the workplace because the culture is punitive.” 

Driving longer-term improvement is an organisational responsibility and should be the focus of senior leadership and the board, Cooper added, stressing the importance of measuring the bottom line of initiatives and valuing people skills on a parity with technical competencies among managers. 

“If you give employees sushi at lunchtime, or a track to go running, a bit of online stress management, but then send them back into an organisation where the approach is command and control and leaders manage by fault-finding rather than reward and praise, the interventions just will not work,” he warned. 

The authors of the study are conducting further analysis on three years’ worth of data from the wellbeing programme to measure any longer-term effects on employees.