Why most workplace wellness benefits don’t actually work


Once, at a previous job, just after our annual insurance re-enrollment presentation, I noticed that mental health deductibles were no longer offered in my insurance renewal options. I contacted my HR rep to see if my therapy would no longer be covered. It wouldn’t—a session that previously cost me $35 out of pocket would now cost $175. 

I asked to meet with her and explained how detrimental I felt this would be for myself and my colleagues. She put on her best-concerned face, told me she really valued my input, and pivoted to a new company benefit she hadn’t touched on in the re-enrollment presentation: Certain plans came with two monthly coaching sessions. I asked whether or not these were personal coaches or certified therapists. She said she’d look into that and get back to me. She never did.

A recent study by Oxford fellow William J. Fleming in the Industrial Relations Journal found that workers who participated in company-sponsored “wellness benefits”—including sleep apps, mindfulness seminars, and even the sort of 1-on-1 coaching sessions this HR rep offered—were no better off than their fellow workers who opted out of these initiatives. 

The corporate wellness market is a billion-dollar industry, which makes sense since 39% of employees report experiencing poor mental health symptoms related to work. Ninety percent of employers report increasing their investment in mental health programs, which are touted as a way for progressive-presenting organizations to help combat employee burnout, low engagement, and the general U.S. grind culture that’s inherently bad for everyone’s mental well-being. 

However, something about this rush to wellness-if the workplace feels fishy to me. Wellness, in general, is an ambiguous term that can run the gamut from legitimate forms of mental and physical care, like mediation, to pseudoscience-heavy marketing schemes like celery juice as a cure-all. I couldn’t help thinking that there was a bit of a smokescreen going on. We’ve moved past the days of casual Fridays and office foosball tables being used to mask a lack of real office benefits. So, are wellness initiatives the new workplace happy hour? 

When I reached out to Fleming to ask a bit more about the study’s genesis, he agreed that things didn’t add up. “In the last decade, there’s been a huge increase in manager-led mental health initiatives, but the existing evidence didn’t seem to back up this proliferation,” he said. “There was also growing skepticism among academics as to the effectiveness and reasons for their popularity.” It turns out the skepticism was warranted, as much of the other research on this topic has been done by the wellness vendors

There seems to be a real discrepancy between performative wellness—mindfulness apps, in-office massages, calorie tracking tools—and benefits that, well, actually benefit employees—the option for remote or hybrid work, increased flexibility, work-life balance, and commitment to DEI. The problem with the latter is that they require systemic changes. 

I feel very fortunate that my current company offers flexible PTO and the ability to design the type of workday and schedule (to a degree) that sets me up for success. I can tell you firsthand how much better for my overall well-being this is than a meditation app, but it requires a leadership team very dedicated to making their organization a people-centric workplace. Finding said meditation app, meanwhile, just requires finding the right vendor.

“The main takeaway is that you can’t expect change if you just try and change the worker and not the workplace. Individualized strategies like mindfulness and resilience training don’t get to the root causes of work stress or tackle poor working conditions,” Fleming says. 

It’s not all cynicism on the workplace wellness front, though. Fleming’s study found a notable exception to the rule—workers who were allowed to do charity or volunteer work did seem to have improved well-being. An older study on the subject from the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine makes a very astute point when answering, “Do Workplace Health Promotion (Wellness) Programs Work?” It depends. The 20-plus authors of the article conclude that while some wellness programs are empty failures, some make the workplace better. Per usual, the answer lies somewhere between black and white. 

I ended up being let go from that job that offered me those coaching sessions, ironically, just a couple of days after presenting the same HR rep with some evidence I’d documented of what I felt was unethical behavior by upper management. When the HR rep emailed me later that day to tie up paperwork loose ends, she reminded me I could take advantage of my generous benefits for the remainder of the month. 

I never ended up consulting any of those personal coaches, but I happened to run into her just a week later while playing tennis in the middle of the day (I was unemployed…Not sure of her excuse.) She made a point to come over, assure me she wished things ended differently… and check on my mental wellbeing.

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