Study suggests wellbeing classes don’t improve mental health at work

16th September by Lee Robertson

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Recent analysis shared at a British Sociological Society conference last month suggests that classes for stress management, relaxation and mindfulness are “are not satisfactory” for improving issues around workers’ wellbeing.

In the study conducted by William Fleming from the University of Cambridge, data on 26,741 employees in 128 UK organisations, including NHS trusts, was analysed to reveal the effects of the various management initiatives on employee mental health.

Fleming scrutinised classes in mindfulness, relaxation, resilience and stress management alongside time management training, financial wellbeing courses, wellbeing apps, mental health and wellbeing coaching, volunteering and charity work and events promoting healthy sleep.

Fleming also applied data for the Britain’s Healthiest Workplace survey for his study, comparing wellbeing between workers who participated in these types of initiatives against those who did not, to grasp their effect. He also adjusted the data to control for factors including gender, age, ethnicity, health conditions, caring responsibilities and job characteristics such as occupational level, contract type and working hours. This enabled him to study the effects of the initiatives in isolation.

He determined that only initiatives to encourage staff to carry out volunteering or charity work improved their mental health, while stress management classes worsened worker wellbeing. The other schemes were deemed to have had no effect.

Presenting his findings at a British Sociological Association online conference on work in late August, he warned that “merely offering short-term programmes or classes is not satisfactory for solving long-standing problems of worker wellbeing.”

Recognising that governmental policy has become more focused on mental health at work and that it is embedded within recommendations from the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health and Social Care, Fleming is keen to see employers take more responsibility for responding to mental health needs.

He told delegates that: “Intervention must be at a management level and not an employee level. It should not be the role of employees to persistently address their own mental health, but that of the management to comprehensively consider and address the structures of work which cause harm through stress, trauma and uncertainty.”

Unsurprised by Fleming’s results, Karen Smart, head of consultancy with the AoEC noted: “This a serious issue that has to be addressed by organisations. Companies must be thinking about the long-term here and investing in a comprehensive wellbeing strategy that will build resilience for both the individual and the organisation as a whole. It is not that stress management or mindfulness classes are wrong, but more about not doing enough in the first place to address the underlying causes of stress, anxiety and burnout.”

Karen continued: “Now is about building and achieving a better normal and this involves putting initiatives in place that support a resilient workforce and adaptive operating model. There is no one size fits all panacea here but designing an approach that puts strategic resilience at its very core will allow leaders and managers to achieve both high performance and wellbeing without compromise.”