feet in shoes that are on fire

In an online discussion, Don McCreary, the senior consultant of Donald McCreary Scientific Consulting, and someone for whom I have the utmost respect, was making a case for “a scientific publishing paradigm that supported the publication and dissemination of negative findings.” To exemplify this need, he offered the example of workplace mental health prevention:

There are so many programs that say they are evidence-based, but there’s no evidence that they actually do what they say they do. Are they marketing us snake oil by relying on the phrase “evidence-based” because they’re too lazy to collect the evidence or is it because they have data to show that the program they’re selling or marketing doesn’t work?”

Claims of “evidence based” in all aspects of wellbeing warrant closer scrutiny.

“Are they marketing us snake oil?” I offered my take:

There are other possibilities, though they may be variations of those Dr. McCreary identified:

  1. Buyers and sellers are naive and/or ill-informed, and believe their products/services are evidence-based, even when they’re not. They feel it’s accurate to call something evidence-based because it draws on a framework for which there’s evidence, because they have internal data demonstrating positive outcomes, or even because they can cite a study showing that an intervention like theirs was effective—none of which justifies calling their program evidence-based.
  2. Employers/purchasers don’t care about evidence and aren’t persuaded by it. But they like buying stuff they can say is evidence-based.
  3. Consumers of services, including many employees, also deem evidence uncompelling. This is borne out by a simple glance at the self-help bestseller list or health food section of a grocery store — endless claims of science-ishness (including mental health benefits!), with no real evidence.

All that said, to make evidence a prerequisite for all employee wellbeing interventions might be an unnecessary and unachievable burden. Someone once said:

If my foot is on fire, I don’t need a meta-analysis of randomized controlled studies before I ask someone to throw a bucket of water on it.

Or, as I wrote to Dr. McCreary:

Instead of calling everything evidence-based just to fuel the wellbeing marketplace, there’d be value in broad discussion about “when should a workplace intervention be limited to evidence-based programs/strategies?”

I’ve come to believe it’s okay to implement an intervention if it’s something employees want and we have good reason to believe it will do no harm. This might include, for example, mindfulness programs and physical fitness opportunities, as well as organizational interventions to reduce psychosocial risk factors.

Most HR managers and business leaders don’t know the first thing about evidence — nor should they, any more than a research methodologist should be able to, say, describe the details of workers’ comp regulations and practices.

It will be better to promote education about evidence and the role it should (or should not) play in employee wellbeing strategies, rather than just pretending programs are evidence-based when they probably aren’t.