8 March 2023

Are Wellbeing Apps For Employees Effective?

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Are Wellbeing Apps For Employees Effective?

Wellbeing apps have become increasingly popular in recent years as organisations continue to search for new and innovative ways to improve employee mental health, increase staff engagement and enhance overall wellbeing. But do wellbeing apps really work, and do they deliver on what they promise?

What are wellbeing apps?

Wellbeing apps are software applications you can download to your phone or hand-held device that are designed to promote and support the mental, physical and emotional wellbeing of users. Typically these apps offer a variety of tools and features including (but not limited to) guided meditations, exercise routines, mood tracking, goal setting, sleep insights, and stress reduction strategies. Some wellbeing apps also offer social networking features that allow users/employees to connect with others to share progress and updates.

Do employee wellbeing apps work?

There is growing concern that wellbeing apps may do more harm than good and fail to deliver on big promises with little to no scientific backing. A 2020 study exploring How the social dimension of fitness apps can enhance and undermine wellbeing showed that apps tracking fitness could lead to an unhealthy obsession with exercise and higher stress levels, potentially resulting in workout burnout. Another study in 2019 that included research conducted by Eoin Whelan, a senior lecturer in business information systems, showed that use of smart watches and trackers add to overall screen-time and can result in negative impacts on mental and physical health.

On the other hand, apps that focus on meditation and mindfulness tend to demonstrate more positive outcomes, although a 2020 review of 26 studies on the effectiveness of mindfulness apps found mixed results. The review, which was published in the journal Mindfulness, found that while some studies reported significant improvements in mindfulness and wellbeing, other studies found no significant differences between app users and control groups. The review also noted that many of the studies had methodological limitations, such as small sample sizes and short follow-up periods.

What are some of the limitations or risks associated with wellbeing apps?

1. Oversimplify complex mental health issues

Wellbeing apps can sometimes run the risk of oversimplifying complex mental health issues. For example, an app that claims to help users manage anxiety may provide solutions like deep breathing exercises or positive affirmations, without addressing the root causes of their anxiety. This might prevent some individuals from seeking professional help when it is needed.

2. Set unrealistic expectations

Another possible risk associated with the use of wellbeing apps is they might set unrealistic expectations for users by promising fast results. When these expectations aren’t met, it can lead to frustration and disappointment for the individual, further exacerbating mental health challenges.

3. Encourage self-diagnosis

Perhaps most concerning of all, wellbeing apps can be actively harmful in some cases by encouraging users to self-diagnose their condition, without providing adequate support or guidance on when to seek professional help. This can delay diagnosis and treatment, and may have serious consequences for an individual’s mental health.

"There is growing concern that wellbeing apps may do more harm than good and fail to deliver on big promises with little to no scientific backing"

What to consider when determining if a wellbeing app is suitable for your team

1. Identify your workplace wellbeing objectives

Wellbeing apps are just one resource available to potentially improve employee and workplace wellbeing. Determining if an app is the right fit for your organisation comes down to the objectives of your wellbeing program. If you’re looking to improve team cohesion and engagement, an app that is encouraging higher screen time is not going to help you achieve this. Similarly if team members are struggling with work-life balance and long working hours, encouraging them to download another app is not going to alleviate these issues. If you’re not sure what employees want in a workplace wellbeing program, consider asking them directly with an anonymous wellbeing survey that captures their wants, needs and interests.

2. Consider your industry and workers

If the majority of your team members are on the road, in a factory or warehouse or on a construction site, an app might be a good way to reach them. However if your workplace is largely in an office or at home on a computer, chances are more screen time is not the answer and will only exacerbate challenges they’re experiencing. A well thought out wellbeing program really considers your work-force and takes into account behavioural, environmental and attitudinal factors. If the aim of your employee wellbeing program is to improve skill sets, enhance relationships and offer professional development, perhaps something like a wellbeing workshop is more appropriate.

3. Run a cost-benefit analysis

The cost of introducing and integrating a third-party wellbeing app might far outweigh the potential benefits of using it. When deciding if a wellbeing app is suitable for your team, run a cost-benefit analysis that considers the cost per employee verse the potential savings of what the app promises to improve. For example, if the adoption of mindfulness and meditation strategies improve your team’s ability to better handle stress, what’s the potential dollar value of this? Collecting and assessing these figures may be challenging at first, but if you’re looking to invest thousands of dollars into a wellbeing app, isn’t it worth knowing what you’re investing in?

A Note from The Wellness Workshop
Consider whether offering yet another App to employees as part of your Wellbeing Program is truly going to improve their overall wellbeing, or contribute to technology and device fatigue. Wellbeing Apps may be effective when used, but need to be accessed and regularly engaged with to have any benefits. Benefits derived from the App may also not outweigh the impact of increased screen time and extended use of technology devices that can cause issues with sleep, cognitive function and complex thinking.

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