Many of the most common programs meant to support employee mental wellbeing are failing to move the needle, according to a recent study by William J. Fleming, a research fellow at Oxford’s Wellbeing Research Centre. Fleming’s survey asked 46,336 workers across 233 UK workplaces about 90 different kinds of programs aimed at promoting wellbeing, including mindfulness classes, free massages, time management training, mental health coaching, and apps that support better sleep and lifestyle change. Analyzing employees’ participation alongside their self-reported mental health, psychological distress, and perception of work environment factors like collaboration and belonging, he found almost no correlation—the only programs that seemed to improve mental wellbeing were employee volunteering initiatives.

Allison Gabriel, a professor of management at Purdue University and faculty director at the Purdue Center for Working Well, argues that the central question in promoting wellbeing—both physical and mental—isn’t about the perks available. Instead, she says, it’s the extent to which workplaces allow workers to make their own choices about how to invest in their physical, emotional, and mental health.

We spoke with Gabriel about the best way to do that. Here is an excerpt of our conversation, edited for length and clarity:

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What are the most important factors to keep in mind when designing wellness programs, knowing that individual workers have differing relationships to their health?

We do have data across a couple of studies that exercise programs, while well intentioned, can backfire if the only people who benefit from those programs are those who already like to exercise. For people who see them as an extrinsic pressure to work out, it just becomes another demand on top of their day. So rather than mandating and forcing, we like to try to make sure that there’s still autonomy or choice in how people are managing their health.

It’s very easy for organizations to say, ‘Oh, we’re doing a yoga retreat.’ That assumes that everybody is going to experience yoga as restorative and mindful. The reality is you might get some people in the organization that do, and some people who’d be like, ‘No, this is not how I want to be spending my time.’ Rather than offering an exercise program, why not offer flex time each week? You could take X number of hours and use that time for whatever leisure pursuits are going to best help you. Maybe for some people that’s exercising; maybe for some people that’s going for a walk or going to a cooking class or connecting with a friend outside of work. Why not give the ownership of that time back to the people themselves?

We know that having autonomy or control over our leisure and our health is really important. Organizations can lean into that and say, ‘Hey, there’s no one size fits all.’ Yes, plenty of data show that being physically active and light-to-moderate movement a few times a week is going to help you, but you don’t want to force it, because that’s going to undermine the efficacy of that benefit.

I feel the same way about mandated-but-not-mandated corporate holiday parties and happy hours—these things that sound fun on the surface, but it could be detracting people from the leisure pursuits that they really would get the most benefit out of. Giving people more autonomy and control over those choices, in my view, would be much better than saying, ‘Hey, if you want to be healthy, you’ve got to do this one thing. And that’s the one thing that we’re going to support in our organization.’

It’s important for managers to be what I like to call ‘recovery beacons’ in the workplace. My colleague Charles Calderwood at Virginia Tech and I have data showing that when recovery is not supported by leadership, the benefits of psychological detachment from work actually backfire. When people psychologically detach and they’re working for supervisors who do not support that, they feel more guilt. That guilt then contributes to lower engagement, more exhaustion. Basically, it turns what should be a really good recovery experience into a complete stressor for people.

Charter Pro members can read a full transcript of our conversation with Gabriel, including research on the link between physical activity and work satisfaction and the most effective ways to psychologically recover from the workday, as well as our guide to rolling out a flex-time benefit.

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