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19 January 2024

What’s the cure for corporate well-being initiatives?

Written by
Nicolai Tillisch

New research raises substantial doubt about whether corporate well-being initiatives have a positive impact. The statistics speak too loud to be blankly denied. It is an invitation to challenge what works.

Gia was so close to succeeding. She was launching an organization-wide program for a large multinational corporation. It was meant to help reduce stress, absenteeism, and staff turnover.

Execution progressed, but the shared volume of work exhausted Gia beyond anything she had ever tried. She kept pushing herself and was on the brink of burnout.

I have enormous empathy for Gia’s dilemma. She fought with stamina for others’ good fortune while risking paying a painful price herself.

This story is true. I have only changed her name. (Hygeia is the ancient Greek god of good health.)

It happened a little more than ten years ago. Since then, attention to employee well-being has only intensified, while many indicators have shown a worsening of the situation over the last decades. New concepts and approaches have kept emerging.

There is an ongoing academic debate about the impact of such initiatives. A new research study does, in particular, raise doubt about whether they have any effect at all. William J. Fleming, a fellow at Oxford University’s Wellbeing Research Center, analyzed data from 46,336 employees in 233 organizations in the United Kingdom. He compared participants in 90 different types of interventions with people who didn’t participate, using 12 measures for well-being. 

Fleming concludes in an article in this month’s issue of Industrial Relations Journal that he finds “little evidence in support of any benefits from these interventions with even some small indication of harm.” 

Only charitable volunteer work shows a positive impact beyond the negligible. Such activities do not contribute to the immediate job demands. At the other end of the spectrum, resilience and stress management training generates negative outcomes on 11 of the 12 well-being measures.

Fleming’s statistics will meet scrutiny. Even if he is somewhat right, any unconvincing average numbers can hide highly positive outliers.

Meanwhile, we can welcome the furor as an invitation to challenge ourselves and our assumptions. 

The questionable impact of corporate initiatives has – I believe – much to do with well-being’s multifaceted and ever-evolving nature. Our well-being is shaped by everything that happens to us. It affects how we show up and interact with each other inside and outside work. 

A limiting assumption is that well-being can be isolated and addressed systematically. There is no simple fix or universal recipe for something that’s fundamentally complex.

Gia illustrates that. She knew much more about stress and exhaustion than others. Still, she may have ended up suffering more than anyone else. 

That’s in itself another reason why well-being is difficult to address among ambitious people. They understand what’s healthy for them but excuse themselves when they believe that their circumstances are exceptional.

In an interview with the New York Times, Fleming elaborates on his findings: ​“If employees do want access to mindfulness apps and sleep programs and well-being apps, there is not anything wrong with that. But if you’re seriously trying to drive employee well-being, then it has to be about working practices.”

Our answers to life depend on the questions we ask ourselves. Instead of asking how to improve employee well-being, executives and HR professionals could ask: how can we enable our colleagues to better succeed in a sounder and safer way?

Nicolai Chen Nielsen and I explored this extensively while researching our book Return on Ambition. We identified three elements as closely interdependent and reinforcing each other. They are well-being, growth, and achievement.

Nicolai and I studied active people who have been outstandingly successful over time. They nurture all three elements continuously. Our in-depth interviews indicated that when they had struggled most on their path, they had compromised one of the elements. A deficit in either element drags the other ones down.

Lack of growth is, for example, a major factor in burnout that is not only caused by a high workload. As long as we are curious and learn along the way, we can accomplish what may have appeared impossible.

To thrive is complex. HR professionals and leaders alike must appreciate that. We cannot fix each other, but we can make deliberate daily efforts to thrive and support each other in doing so.

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