Free yoga and meditation at work don’t seem to benefit workers, research finds. But better pay might

Free yoga and meditation at work don’t seem to benefit workers, research finds. But better pay might

In the 2010s, startup companies in Silicon Valley became known for not only their product innovation, but for revolutionizing office culture as well. Specifically, the idea of offering “wellness perks” became the norm. Since then, dozens of companies have made headlines for offering yoga in the office, mental health benefits, a ball pit in the break room and even nap time. While a bit infantilizing at times, the intent has been to improve the well-being — and productivity — of employees as stress, anxiety and burnout have become a frequently discussed phenomenon over the last decade.

Yet another study published last month found that these so-called “wellness perks” which have dominated work culture over the last decade don’t improve well-being, perhaps acting as the final nail in the coffin to yet another chapter where healthcare has been inextricably tied to work. 

Published in the Industrial Relations Journal, the study looked at the outcomes of 90 different wellness interventions among 46,336 workers in 233 organizations. In the study, William J. Fleming, the author and a fellow at Oxford University’s Wellbeing Research Center asked the question: Do participants in individual-level mental well-being interventions at work have higher well-being? And if so, or if not, how and why?

“There was quite a bit of criticism of individualized approaches in general and an intuition that these programs wouldn’t engage with working conditions.”

Using data based on responses from the Britain’s Healthiest Workplace survey in 2017 and 2018, the study found that the following types of wellness interventions — relaxation practices, time management, coaching, financial well-being programmes, well-being apps, online coaching, sleep apps and sleep events — did not improve employee well-being. 

In an interview, Fleming told Salon his results were surprising because these programs have been so popular. Individually, many of the perks offered have been shown to have a positive effect on people’s health.


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“But I wouldn’t say I was personally that surprised,” he said. “Because there was quite a bit of criticism of individualized approaches in general and an intuition that these programs wouldn’t engage with working conditions.”

Indeed, the study isn’t the first to look at the impact of wellness perks in the context of the workplace. In 2022, the Illinois Workplace Wellness Study — a large randomized controlled trial of a wellness program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign followed nearly 5,000 employees to see how various health-focused programs, like exercise, tai chi, and financial wellness classes affected their health — landed on similarly disappointing results. A separate study published in 2019 raised concerns about the effectiveness of such programs, too. In Fleming’s study, he suggested organizational and structural changes to the workplace — like changes to scheduling, management practices, staff resources, performance review and performance reviews — would better improve employee well-being. 

“The biggest takeaway is that individualized strategies will not improve employees’ well-being,” he said. “If there is not first a serious engagement with working conditions and organizational practice and culture.” 

Notably, the only “perk” that improved well-being was volunteering. When asked why this helped while others didn’t, Fleming said it was likely because it enhanced “a sense of purpose among workers.”

“I think ultimately making more money would have made my life easier in a more significant way than having in-office meditation sessions ever did.”

“By making their work more meaningful or by giving meaning separate from the job,” he said. “They could also offer time away from usual work demands, give more chances for socializing or develop new skills. It will depend on what types of volunteering opportunities which I wasn’t able to go into with the data.”

Ryan Farley told Salon via email that he previously worked at a company that offered mental health and wellness perks as part of its benefits package. While he appreciated having access to them, he said at the end of the day he would have preferred to be making more money. 

“The wellness benefits I had access to were things like an in-office masseuse, guided meditation sessions, along with access to therapy,” he said. “But, I think ultimately making more money would have made my life easier in a more significant way than having in-office meditation sessions ever did.”

Lindsay Lalonde, who lives in Canada, told Salon via email that wellness in the workplace for her would be “flexible working hours, more PTO, and recognition.”

“Many wellness perks are geared towards a certain type of person, usually a health-conscious person interested in meditation, yoga, fitness or anything along those lines,” she said. “That’s great, but that’s not everyone’s idea of wellness, plus, who has the time for any of those things?”

More and more research keeps strengthening the case for a four-day work week. A study published last year in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity found that employees were physically healthier as a result of being more likely to be physically active during their days off. Another study found that higher minimum wages are associated with positive health outcomes. While some research has stated that money doesn’t equate to happiness (although there is some controversy over that), there is an international consensus that access to basic needs and social determinants of health such as housing and education, is good for one’s health. 

Fleming said this study adds to the argument that work should be considered as a “determinant of health and wellbeing.”

“I think the future will be a reorientation to fundamental aspects of work; pay, contracts, schedules, management, colleague relationships, workloads, etcetera,” he said. “The workplace has had a place in public health policy for decades now, [and] I don’t see that going away.”

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