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Does workplace 'wellness' really help employee mental health?

Yoga is a good way to destress and clear your mind. (Getty)

You’ve landed a job at a new start-up which prides itself on promoting employee wellness. Alongside your salary, you’ve been offered a subsidised gym membership, meditation classes and catered, healthy meals. The aim, according to your new employer, is keep you happy and healthy, so you stay productive and take fewer sick days.

A few months into the job, however, you’ve noticed your boss giving you the side-eye when you’ve tried to leave your desk at 6pm. More often than not, you end up staying late and grabbing a free meal from the canteen – but don’t get home until 9pm. The work you’re expected to complete is mounting and you’ve barely got time to make use of the gym classes you’ve got access to. You feel stressed, exhausted and are at risk of burning out.

‘Wellness’ is a term bandied around by many well-intentioned employers as a reaction to the growing mental health crisis. One in 6.8 people experience mental health problems in the workplace, according to the Mental Health Foundation, yet many suffer in silence. Between 2018 and 2019, a total of 12.8 million working days were lost to mental illness in the UK.


As a result, many employers are going further than sticking to health and safety laws by exploring corporate ‘wellness’ schemes. And while there’s nothing wrong with companies offering perks that may encourage them to relax and stay fit, problems arise when we ignore the real reasons why employee mental health is on the decline.

“Wellness is very much an organisational trend, as the wellness industry rapidly grows across western nations,” says Lee Chambers, an environmental psychologist and wellbeing consultant. “Many companies are investing in external wellness solutions as they look to stem the flow of employee illness and productivity loss caused by poor physical and mental health.”

Read more: Does a blanket ban on out-of-hours emails actually help our wellbeing?

The problem is that employees all have their own specific needs when it comes to good health and wellbeing. “A one-size-fits-all approach is rarely effective in creating any lasting change,” Chambers says. “Fruit bowls and yoga classes are only utilised by those who are engaged to do so. Workshops create awareness but without embedding within business processes, falls by the wayside once people get back to doing the day job.”

Some companies are encouraging employees to take part in ‘mental health first aid’ training, a series of courses which teach people how to look out for the signs of poor mental health. However, Chambers points out, it often falls to a few people to try and keep track of the latest developments and deal with any issues that arise.

Another key problem with corporate wellness programmes is that companies may promote them for the wrong reasons. If a business offers free dinners for employees, it may be that they expect them to work overtime – rather than a gesture of goodwill. Yoga classes or a gym membership may be an attractive perk, but they don’t compensate for being overworked and underpaid.

“When wellness is imported as a tool to conform to legislation or to try and keep workers well enough to work, it ignores the fact that the best return on investment in wellness is to promote a culture of wellness from within,” Chambers says.

In some cases, these programmes may actually negatively affect how an employer is perceived by the staff – particularly if their actual concerns are ignored. “If an organisation purports to be a place where wellness is valued, external wellness programmes are brought in, and employees concerns are not taken on board, it can be damaging as the leadership will be seen to be incongruent with their messaging, leading to lower levels of engagement and lower wellness responsibility taken by individuals,” he adds.

Read more: How to look after your staff’s mental health during the coronavirus pandemic

“If employees are shown dignity and respect, and their wellness concerns prioritised, plans put in place to ensure it is actioned on and reviewed, this alone will create a strong foundational culture of wellness and employee experience that can be built upon further to create a truly exceptional place to work.”

Rather than tapping into ‘quick fix’ wellness trends, treating your employees as valued individuals – rather than just a resource – is far more beneficial to their mental health.

“To do this requires a business to prepare to make a cultural change, and get all employees involved in what wellness means to them,” Chambers says. “You can also get them to discuss the challenges they face and how they would overcome them. Building the trust of your employees is vital to their wellness because we all thrive off feeling appreciated and being given a level of autonomy.

“Often, it is simple elements that can be remedied internally, such as a lack of clarity on role and responsibility, leading to overwork, poor management communication leading to conflict, a lack of feedback, leading to feeling undervalued or feeling like they have little control over their role, leading to a lack of innovation and creativity.”

Working to solve these genuine problems – as well as ensuring people are paid fairly, aren’t overworked or under unreasonable pressure – is far more effective than a colourful office playroom or a ‘relaxation pod.’