Are we fooling ourselves with well-being initiatives in the workplace? – Opinion

Well-being programmes are popping up everywhere in companies. A recent study raised the question whether these measures actually do more than simply papering over the cracks. Dr. Gretel Schrijvers, CEO of Mensura Group, reveals the issues.


Since the corona pandemic, employee well-being has been high on the list of priorities in organisations. Add to that the challenging context of the war for talent, the ageing population, the suboptimal level of employment and disappointing trends in absenteeism and you have the recipe for the perfect storm. Retaining staff and keeping them at work is therefore essential in pretty much every sector. So, protecting their personal well-being does seem quite logical.

But is it really? Management professor Frederik Anseel debates this point in an opinion column in De Tijd. Most well-being programmes put the responsibility for mental health on the individual. Yet, with this approach, structural elements in the work environment that affect well-being are often left untouched. In fact, a recent study by Oxford colleague William Fleming in Industrial Relations Journal (2024) reveals that most psychological problems at work are rooted in how work is organised, in the way that jobs and careers are shaped. For example, the workload and work organisation, how employees are judged and appreciated, the extent to which work and home are in balance, etc.

Papering the cracks

Looking at things in this way raises questions about the value of well-being initiatives, such as yoga or pilates sessions, mindfulness training, healthy eating workshops or a session with the stress coach. What, are these now useless? Wrong again. There is evidence of the positive impact of many of these activities. Yet, they risk simply papering over the cracks if – despite all good intentions – they focus only on the individual.

Placing the responsibility for mental or physical health entirely on the individual takes no account of the sources of potential issues. Individual choices or circumstances play a role, of course. But, if structural factors in the work environment are ignored, the pain may be eased, yet problems will not be resolved.

No quick fixes

That’s why structural policy should be the starting point, with specific objectives and metrics. The impact of such programmes depends on the desired effect. Is your priority to stimulate fun at work and satisfaction? Then a selection of well-being initiatives can certainly contribute. But you’ll need to go further if you want a sustainable and lasting impact on employee well-being and employability. There are no quick fixes: it’s a matter of rolling up your sleeves to design a policy, develop an action plan and to check to what extent the intended result is achieved.

For those wishing to get stuck in, the External Service for Prevention and Protection at Work is a perfect partner. Using risk analyses and medical data, for example, structural deficiencies are revealed. Plus, exactly the expertise you need is available to help in setting up the action plan, so that every euro spent on well-being is truly worthwhile.