Workplace wellbeing initiatives are not the key to happiness

If employers want happy and healthy employees, they need to focus on minimising ill-being.
- Dr Jasmine Virhia

Workplace wellbeing initiatives, involving meditation apps, subsidised gym memberships, yoga and free lunches, are a waste of employers’ time and money, according to new LSE research.

Employees would prefer to pursue happiness in their own way, with the employer responsible for providing sufficient work-life balance and decent pay. Employers should also focus more on reducing negative aspects of the workplace such as bullying, favouritism, burnout and lack of career progression.

Researchers at LSE’s The Inclusion Initiative (TII) in the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science interviewed 100 people across banking, finance and professional services in the UK and created the Beyond Workplace Wellbeing Framework to advise employers. Not one of the interviewees was in favour of workplace wellbeing initiatives.

One third of employees reported that the demands of their job, a lack of flexibility regarding the way in which they fulfilled their responsibilities and the way they were treated significantly exacerbated mental and physical health conditions, therefore suggesting that organisational wellbeing initiatives might be redundant.

Instead, 51% of employees highlighted the benefits of autonomous working conditions, where they had decision making power over how, when, and where they completed their work. Autonomy allowed employees to create a workday that enabled them to be both productive and enhance their own wellbeing. Autonomy was also linked to greater work-life balance for a third of employees.

Employers should therefore minimise ‘ill-being’ caused by the workplace and focus on creating ‘psychologically safe’ work environments. The researchers advocate for autonomous working conditions—raised by the majority of interviewees—allowing employees to create a workday that enables them to be both productive and enhance their own wellbeing. When employees are granted autonomy and trust by their employer, the majority of those interviewed said they acted with volition to plan and utilise their time in line with business aims and job demands.

Overall, the Beyond Workplace Wellbeing Framework re-frames the employer’s responsibilities and provides clearer lines of how the employer is accountable to their employees. The researchers also endorse a work model that encourages employers to transition from a paternalistic approach to one based on trust, wherein employees are responsible for their personal well-being without compromising the productivity necessary to fulfil their roles.

Lead author, Dr Jasmine Virhia, Behavioural Scientist at TII, said: “If employers want happy and healthy employees, they need to focus on minimising ill-being. This calls for an assessment of the way in which organisational practices contribute to the detriment of employees’ physical and psychological health. Our framework provides guidance on how to do this, and our findings clearly demonstrate that employees attend to their personal wellbeing in highly individualistic ways outside of work.”

Co-author, Dr Grace Lordan, Director of TII and associate professor at LSE, said “Employers should not be expected to take responsibility for employee happiness, simply because what makes a person happy is personal. Instead, they need to deal with the bad things that happen in the workplace head-on, like bullying and burnout, and also provide an environment that is psychologically safe so all colleagues can contribute effectively. If employers care about happiness they should provide a decent wage and give enough work-life balance so employees can pursue their own happiness.”

The Beyond Workplace Wellbeing Framework: A New Framework for the Organisation of Work to Cultivate Wellbeing and Productivity in the Workplace by Jasmine Virhia, Yolanda Blavo and Grace Lordan is published as a PsyArXiv working paper here: