Mental wellness apps offered to staff don’t help

Namastake this app and shove it?
17 January 2024

That anti-stress seminar sure helped this guy’s anxiety!

• Employee mental health appears unaffected by wellness apps.
• Unsurprisingly, better shcedules, more flexibility and more money work a treat.
• Wellbeing research appears to debunk the actual benefit of corporate wellness to staff.

The billion-dollar industry of employee mental health services has flourished as a way for businesses to signpost that they care about their staff.

Often billed as the topmost benefit on job listings, digital wellness solutions, mindfulness seminars, sleep apps and other packages that scream “your mental health matters!” is one of the first things a new employee will be presented with.

But are these anything more than a point of pride for the HR department? A British researcher who analyzed survey responses from 46,336 workers at companies offering such programs found that those who participated were no better off than their colleagues who skipped the Monday morning resilience workshop.

Not one of the interventions that companies selflessly offer – apps, coaching, relaxation classes, courses in time management – had any positive effect.

Employee mental health bettered by doing charity work

The study, published in the Industrial Relations Journal, explored the outcomes of 90 different interventions – individual-level approaches – and found that only one had marked positive impact on employees: given the opportunity, the wellbeing of workers who did charity or volunteer work seemed to improve.

“It’s a fairly controversial finding, that these very popular programs were not effective,” said William J. Fleming, the author of the study and a fellow at Oxford University’s Wellbeing Research Center.

“If employees do want access to mindfulness apps and sleep programs and wellbeing apps, there is not anything wrong with that,” he said. “But if you’re seriously trying to drive employee’s wellbeing, then it has to be about working practices.”

Is it a surprise that analysis suggests the key to bettering employees’ mental health is a focus on “core organizational practices” including schedules and pay?

Researchers say the findings come as no surprise but do call into question practices that have become common across almost all job sectors.

“Employers want to be seen as doing something, but they don’t want to look closely and change the way work is organized,” said Tony D. LaMontagne, a professor of work, health and well-being at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia.

Who’d have thunk that the corporate wellness services industry didn’t have staff’s best interests at heart? Employee mental health has entered the corporate consciousness, certainly, but by now it represents a money saving strategy rather than a staff care plan.

That’s not to say that the HR department or company execs are uncaring, or don’t understand the impact of mental wellbeing on the workplace; work as it stands isn’t ever going to foster wellness because it ultimately doesn’t center on the human – it’s all about the money.

Investing in the interventions offered by wellbeing apps and seminar leaders is cheaper than increasing staff time off or, heaven forbid, wages.

Less pessimistically, the wellness package option is sold as a money-saving strategy that will improve worker health and productivity.

According to Adam Chekroud, a co-founder of Spring Health and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale, a blanket dismissal of workplace interventions risks “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

A 2022 study tracking 1,132 workers in the US who used Spring Health, a platform that connects employees with mental health services like therapy and medication management, found that 69.3% of participants’ depression was improved. They missed fewer days of work and reported higher productivity.

Babies in the bathwater?

“There is recent and highly credible data that things like mental health programs do improve all those metrics that [Dr. Fleming] mentions,” Dr. Chekroud said. “That’s the baby you shouldn’t be throwing out.”

Any attempt to take the employee mental health more seriously is a step in the right direction – even if only a teeny little one, taken by an Inner Child.