Can we fix burnout with mindfulness? New research suggests not

January 31, 2024

Dr. Jazz Croft

Science Liaison

Unmind Product Spotlight: Calendar Reminders


A new study from Oxford University has provoked discussion this week with findings that employees using meditation apps or resilience training aren’t reporting any better mental health than those who don’t. 

Along with the threat of a lot of wasted time and money for organisations, the study also challenges prior research findings of benefits from wellbeing interventions. 

Here, we look at the study, what it means for the future of wellbeing strategies and why leaders embracing a broader, organisation-wide approach are more likely to get results. 

Null findings for resilience or meditation 

This study analyses survey data from over 46,000 workers across 233 organisations from 2017/2018. The results? People engaging with common individual-level interventions showed no better subjective wellbeing than non-participants. 

Interventions tested include resilience training, mindfulness apps, wellbeing training seminars and time management, all of which focused on the individual employee without looking at their work conditions. 

As a large dataset using gold-standard measures of workplace wellbeing and mental health, it’s perhaps the most robust evidence that an app or seminar alone isn’t enough to promote better employee wellbeing. 

What the study doesn’t tell us

But as with science in any area, a single study adds to, rather than finishes, the conversation. And there are limitations (acknowledged by the author) and questions the study doesn’t answer. 

Quality control

As previous reviews have shown, less than 5% of mental health platforms are evaluated to see if they work for employees. By analysing interventions that vary in quality, it’s likely the effects of more robust interventions will get cancelled out by poorer ones.

How interventions were implemented

Across initiatives, no data was available to tell us how interventions were implemented. This means that drivers of wellbeing that influence interventions, including what other support is available and the working environment, aren’t factored into findings. 

What do the findings mean for organisations? 

Fundamentally, the findings are a challenge to organisations that aren’t looking at the broader context of their teams in their wellbeing strategy. Can employees discuss difficulties openly with their manager when they come up? Are job demands managed effectively to prevent the risk of burnout? Are teams psychologically safe enough to challenge ideas and work at their best? 

These questions get to the heart of the systemic issues that affect employee wellbeing. Like fish in polluted water, employees in toxic environments won’t benefit from individual fixes. It takes a systemic change alongside individual interventions to bring about real change. 

“A complex system of factors does affect employee mental health and wellbeing. Failure to address this system means that employers may continue to try to patch things up with Band-Aids rather than enact true solutions that change the existing systems. And when you don’t make real changes in the system, you could just end up spending money for nothing.” – Dr William Fleming, study author 

Real change for the whole organisation 

Of course, understanding the whole organisation can be more demanding than offering a meditation app. But with organisations with happier employees outperforming competitors and burnout threatening the workforce, systemic change is a business imperative.

At Unmind, we deliver our whole-enterprise platform backed by the Unmind Blueprint, our scientific map of factors and interventions that influence employee mental health across various levels of influence including employees, organisations and wider cultural factors.

Using the Blueprint, we build products and tailor strategic support organisations proven to influence employee wellbeing, including manager training and data-driven strategy using our assessment tool, Unmind Insights. 

As our recent case study of Unmind employees showed, implementing initiatives at individual, manager and organisational levels contributed to increased wellbeing and reduced costs related to mental health. 

Following the science

For organisations and leaders, this study highlights the importance of two things to look out for in wellbeing partners: science-backed interventions and a holistic approach that looks beyond individual employees to support organisational change. 

To find out more about our science-backed whole organisation approach, book a call.