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Four years after the coronavirus pandemic fuelled increased usage of employee well-being interventions, some employers are questioning whether these support tools are actually beneficial to workers.

A recent study by Oxford University’s Wellbeing Research Center found little evidence that these interventions actually provide any benefits to workers. Indeed, the study found there was a “small indication of harm that would confirm fears from critics” in some cases, such as resilience and stress management trainings.

The study, which surveyed more than 46,000 workers across more than 230 organizations, found among all the interventions included, employee volunteering opportunities was the only exception in terms of possibly offering a positive benefit to respondents.

Read: Survey finds Canadian employees who volunteer have better mental health

How employers define ‘well-being programs’ is really an individual interpretation that can include a range of wellness offerings — some of which may be more comprehensive than others, says Paula Allen, Telus Health’s global leader and senior vice-president of research and client insights.

She points out, among the many interventions listed in this study, clinical programs included in employee assistance programs were missing. “The other thing that is quite interesting is the study design didn’t track people over time because that’s the typical way that you understand whether something is having an impact or not, . . . which the author noted was a limitation of the study.”

In addition, the Oxford study didn’t dive into the underlying issues affecting respondents’ well-being, she adds. “People who use certain programs tend to use them for a reason. If you don’t have, for example, sleep disruption, you’re not going to use a sleep program. If you’re not feeling tense, you’re likely not going to gravitate towards a program that helps you with calming and meditation and relaxation. . . . The author himself basically suggests that there’s probably some benefit to [gain for] the user group because they shouldn’t look the same if you have a group that has a need and a group that doesn’t.”

Read: Employers leveraging benefits, flexibility to prevent pandemic surge in disability claims

When building workplace health strategies, employers have a large population to consider, says Allen, adding humans naturally fluctuate in and out of different states of well-being. It’s also important that employers ensure workers have access to a continuum of care support tools to help them stay healthy, as well as offerings that lift up those who might be struggling. “We want to make sure that there are critical and preventative interventions [as well as] programs that address the workplace environment; all of those things work together.”

As well, the study didn’t examine whether each of the interventions would be more successful as part of a holistic wellness approach, Allen continues, noting strategies that address all areas of well-being in tandem can realize different results, instead of just focusing on one area. “Well-being is an individual thing and in that circle of well-being, somebody could be more wanting on different spectrums than others.”

A review of most benefits plans will reveal that some offerings are used more during one year, while the next another aspect of the program could see increased usage. During the pandemic, there was increased focus on mental health and social well-being, she says. “A study like this could have highlighted what mental-health needs are really in demand right now.”

Read: Employers taking holistic approach to mental health as coronavirus pandemic wanes: expert