Wellbeing classes do not improve workers’ mental health, research suggests

Analysis finds most initiatives fail to solve long-standing problems, as experts highlight HR faces ‘ongoing challenge’ with implementing support

Classes for stress management, relaxation and mindfulness are “not satisfactory” for solving issues of worker wellbeing, according to a new study.

Research by William Fleming of the University of Cambridge on data from 26,471 employees found that various wellbeing and stress management initiatives had “no effect” on mental health. 

He told delegates at a British Sociological Association online conference that the interventions appeared to be a “convenient option” for employers concerned with mental health, adding that merely offering “short-term programmes or classes are not satisfactory for solving long-standing problems of worker wellbeing”.

Using data from the Britain’s Healthiest Workplace survey, Fleming compared staff wellbeing between workers who participated in various initiatives to those who did not, to see their effect. 

He found that of all the initiatives analysed – which included resilience and stress management classes, relaxation classes, mental health and wellbeing coaching, and events promoting healthy sleep – only volunteering for charity work improved mental health, while stress management classes actually worsened staff wellbeing.

Fleming said the results are counter to much of the “prevailing narrative around mental health interventions in governmental policy, within HR management and public health literature”. 

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Ngozi Weller, managing director of Aurora Wellness, said the results were unsurprising and instead of one off-stress management classes, companies must adopt a comprehensive wellbeing strategy. 

“The problem isn’t that stress management classes or meditation are wrong per se, but rather that they do not do enough to address the underlying causes of stress in our lives,” said Weller, adding that mental wellbeing has been ignored for too long and was seen as a ”personal problem rather than a corporate responsibility towards its employees”. 

The research concluded that the initiatives were “not helpful” for the average worker and argued that intervention for employee mental health must be at a management level. Fleming told the conference delegates that it should not be the role of employees to “persistently address their own mental health, but that of management to comprehensively consider and address the structures of work which cause harm through stress, trauma and uncertainty”. 

HR consultant Steve Carpenter said that the pandemic has exacerbated the need for companies to offer more mental health and wellbeing support, and that HR faced an ongoing challenge with implementing support. 

“Some of the challenges that HR teams face when looking to provide additional wellbeing support include the ongoing stigma around subjects such as mental health, and also the fact that there isn't a ‘one size fits all’ solution,” said Carpenter. 

He added that “there has never been a busier time for HR departments and they are not always able to dedicate the time needed to create a wellbeing strategy”, which can lead to an increase in burnout and stress.