Posted By Kate Platts

Posted on18th April 2024

New research out of Oxford University reviewed data from over 46,000 employees in 233 organisations to explore whether mental health interventions at work are effective at supporting employee wellbeing. The research offers a detailed look at the extent to which programmes such as mindfulness, resilience training, stress management, wellbeing apps, mental health coaching, and sleep programmes improve people’s mental health at work – and the results are extremely interesting for anyone working in the workplace wellness sector. Here are three key takeaways from the study:

Resilience, relaxation, coaching, financial wellbeing, and wellbeing apps tend towards positive effects, but volunteering programmes show the strongest benefits for employee wellbeing.

Workplace volunteering tends to have the highest participation rates of all employee programmes, showing the importance of volunteering as a tool for engagement – a critical element of wellbeing at work. Volunteering fosters feelings of belonging and purpose, improving mental health by enhancing ‘social resources’ rather than focusing on psychological skill-building. Interpersonal connections and trust amongst colleagues enable professional growth and thriving and are hugely important for feelings of psychological safety at work.

Wellbeing programme participants are more likely to report that their organisation supports their stress.

How workplace health culture is perceived by employees is a central component of workplace wellbeing. It may be the case that those with higher stress levels are the people participating in stress-reduction programmes; nevertheless, the belief that you are valued and supported by your employer may create a powerful sense of commitment and engagement, in turn supporting organisational retention and recruitment.

Workplace wellbeing initiatives should be considered amongst the ‘messy realities of organisational life’.

In other words, what works in one situation, may not work in another. Context is king! It’s vitally important to understand the organisational culture, climate and environment in which wellbeing programmes are being delivered. This can only be achieved through proper and comprehensive consultation – not just with organisational leaders, but also with service users – the employees themselves.

This research supports what we intuitively know. It underlines the importance of a holistic and integrated approach, taking complex cultural and environmental factors into account when designing and delivering employee wellbeing programmes.  It challenges those in the delivery space to be honest about what they can achieve, and to work in close collaboration with employers and employees to bring about the best possible health and wellbeing outcomes.  

Anybody working in the workplace wellness sector will acknowledge that wellbeing programmes at work are not perfect – engagement can be challenging, implementation messy, results hard to quantify.  But experience on the ground tells us that they are worth the effort.

Take third sector organisations, for example, where resources are spread thin, yet people are driven forwards by their passion for and commitment to the cause. Is there a place for programmes that support relaxation and enjoyment at the end of a long and hard-working day? Absolutely!  Whether these programmes result in long term improvements in psychological wellbeing is hard to say. But for the exhausted employee, a 30-minute meditation on a virtual reality headset may be just the ticket to decompress and reset for the evening ahead.  Our own research shows that vibroacoustic therapy, using an immersive sound lounger and headphones playing stress-reducing ‘binaural beats’ can induce powerful short-term relaxation effects in people during their working day – but perhaps more importantly, users found the experience fun, enjoyable, engaging, and exciting – all emotional states that organisations want their people to experience at work. 

We also know that mental health interventions that focus solely on cognitive or psychological skill-building ignore the mountain of evidence around physical activity – the number one intervention for improving mental health. ‘Moving more’ should be the default first step in improving employee mental health – and it doesn’t require specialist equipment or a specific environment – it just needs willing role models in leadership and an inclusive, supportive, and flexible culture that recognises movement in all its forms (think walking meetings, sit/stand desks, and chair yoga).  Physical activity plays a such vital role in maintaining and improving mental health – being a natural and accessible method of managing stress, improving mood, enhancing self-esteem, providing a positive distraction from work, and encouraging social interaction – it really is a no-brainer for organisations who want to support the mental health of their workforce.

With the above in mind, here are a few golden rules for getting the very best value and impact from employee mental health programmes, developed over many years of supporting positive workplace health and wellbeing:

  • Providers and employers must work together to understand context. This means a thorough exploration of the needs and objectives of the organisation, as well as key challenges and barriers.
  • Listen to ‘worker voice’ and focus on qualitative feedback. Only employees themselves will provide an accurate gauge of organisational culture, and taking a people-centred approach is likely to improve wellbeing programme engagement, adherence, and impact.
  • Take a pragmatic approach. Be sensible and realistic about what will work and be ready to flex and adapt if you are not having the impact you want.
  • Focus on service quality. Make sure implementation is consistently brilliant. Get feedback at every stage from all important stakeholders.
  • Build physical activity in wherever possible. Moving more is a fundamental component of wellbeing. In nature or outdoors is even better.
  • And finally… don’t underestimate the power of fun. Enjoyment and social connection are powerful elements of wellbeing, as well as organisational commitment and engagement.

Mental health programmes at work can work, and do work, but it doesn’t happen by chance. By promoting the positive through well thought-out wellbeing programmes, and preventing harm by ensuring supportive, inclusive practices, cultures and environments, organisations can play a meaningful role in keeping employees mentally healthy and happy at work.

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