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Individual-level wellbeing strategies aren't working

Changing the working practices of your organisation will be more effective than stop-gap measures


Workplace wellbeing has been a popular research topic for decades. But policymakers and managers have never been more aware of the need to identify effective solutions. Absence due to mental illness is at record levels; the Covid-19 pandemic raised important questions about working lives, and the link between wellbeing and organisational performance has never been clearer. As a result, mental health interventions have been growing in prevalence.

Yet the problems seem to be getting worse, not better. Researchers urgently need to get to the bottom of what can boost how people feel at work, and we need to communicate this to employers effectively. Many UK workplaces now offer some support for employee mental health. Some of the most popular strategies aim to promote positive psychological functioning, such as through mindfulness, stress management training and wellbeing apps.

These types of practices are called universal, individual-level wellbeing interventions: universal because they’re supposed to help everyone; and they’re individual-level because they seek change in the capacities of individual employees.

This study set out to evaluate whether these interventions were actually boosting employee wellbeing.

What’s new

I analysed data from hundreds of organisations and tens of thousands of workers across the UK. My study involved investigating interventions across more workplaces than any previous study.

This approach also drew out the types of practices implemented, looking at 11 different types of individual-level interventions.

These included resilience and stress management training, relaxation classes, coaching, time management training, financial wellbeing training, wellbeing apps and corporate volunteering opportunities.

The headlines from my study were everywhere; all over the newspapers and social media. It’s rare that an academic study gets so much public interest but it’s an important part of this story. Comments on news articles show that employees everywhere have been feeling that wellbeing initiatives weren’t – and aren’t – helping them. Now they’ve got evidence to back up their thoughts.

Public consensus on what matters for mental health at work has moved on. Organisational practices need to respond.

Read more: No evidence mindfulness and wellbeing apps improve employee wellbeing

Key findings 

Are wellbeing apps completely ineffective?
The headline finding is that individual-level mental health interventions don’t work. Across several indicators of work wellbeing and mental health, participants appeared no better off than their colleagues who didn’t participate. There wasn’t improvement in evaluations of the job either.

These programmes don’t work because they don’t respond to the demands of people’s jobs, or they don’t effectively provide extra skills and resources. Attempts to change the worker, rather than changing the workplace, are missing the mark.

Can wellbeing initiatives make things worse?
There are multiple risks to implementing ineffective wellbeing initiatives. If an employee learns techniques for stress and time management, resilience or mindfulness but still doesn’t feel better, this may induce feelings of self-blame.

Employees may also be turned off from practices that they are think are sticking plasters or window dressing. Beware the dangers of ‘well-washing’ when there are known problems and stressors in your organisation.

In my results, there’s also an element of selection bias. People who participate are often more in need of support. If initiatives aren’t providing this support or solving problems, we won’t see improvement.

What changes actually make a difference?
While my research tells us what doesn’t work, I’ve also been working on what does work for improving wellbeing. In another piece of research completed with the World Wellbeing Movement, my colleagues and I have brought together some of the key academic literature on workplace interventions that has been shown to improve how people feel at work. We include mostly organisation-level interventions.

We found that the best way to improve how people feel at work is by improving their jobs. Crucially, this involves redesigning jobs to identify and limit stressors, as well as busting blockers which get in the way of getting the work done.

Employees must have a say in how their work is done, when it is done, and how they are reviewed. They should also be given input in how success can be celebrated and how they can develop their career.

Good people management and colleague relationships are, unsurprisingly, vital, and have to be deliberately cultivated. It almost goes without saying (but is worth reiterating) that fair and regular pay decisions will also keep staff happy and motivated.

Employees have to be included in discussions of how to improve wellbeing. By working together with HR or wellbeing teams and line managers, employees can identify stressors at work.

Together, tailored solutions can then be designed that meet the unique needs of the organisation. This is the future of workplace wellbeing interventions.

Should individualised strategies be avoided?
While my research suggests that individualised initiatives offer no value, it’s unlikely we can completely forget about them. If a group of employees claim that they want a specific initiative, it’s difficult to reject that.

Top recommendations from organisations such as the National Institute for Care Excellence suggest improving working conditions and organisational change must come first.

Individual-level strategies could supplement these.

From research to reality

There are the important questions that HR practitioners can use to evaluate whether initiatives are working.

● What are the outcomes that matter?

Whether it’s a measure of mental health, job satisfaction or sentiment on specific elements of a job, assessing whether participants are feeling better before and after implementation of an intervention will provide answers.

● How many people know about and are engaging with the initiative?

If an initiative only has one in 10 workers engaging with it, it’s not a serious approach to improving your whole organisation’s wellbeing. Low engagement can be a sign that employees don’t think wellbeing initiatives are responding to the challenges and desires of a workforce.

● Is the initiative improving organisational practices?

Replace ineffective interventions with improved organisational practices. Think about the core tasks and processes and how these can be improved.

Talk of organisational change might seem daunting and beyond the reach of many. It’s vital to get senior management to buy into improving working practices. Real change will be hard, but will improve the lives of your workforce and your organisation’s performance.


William Fleming is the Unilever research fellow at the Wellbeing Research Centre, University of Oxford. His research focuses on workplace interventions, what works, what doesn’t work, and why. Before taking up his current post, he completed a PhD in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge.


This article was published in the May/June 2024 edition of HR magazine. 

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