How can companies avoid the charge of ‘wellbeing washing’?

Employees are largely unimpressed with corporate wellness initiatives, seeing them as paying lip service to their mental health concerns. A broader culture change may be required to change their minds
Woman sits in a yoga pose in open-plan office

Many companies are keen to stress their wellbeing credentials, having invested heavily in recent years in initiatives ranging from employee assistance programmes to mental health days off. Despite this, not all of their staff are seeing the benefits.

This disparity between what employers and their employees view as impactful action has led to the emergence of a new term: wellbeing washing.

What is wellbeing washing?

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A nod to ‘greenwashing’, the term is increasingly being applied to enterprises that aren’t offering their people the mental health support they need, despite publicly claiming to do so.

Employees show dissatisfaction with wellness offerings

A survey published in February by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (Iosh) revealed that 51% of employees deemed their employer guilty of wellbeing washing. They cited initiatives such as the provision of free fruit in the office, wellbeing walks and mental health first aiders as mere sticking plasters while stress-inducing problems such as unsustainably heavy workloads were ignored.

Barbara Jeffery is a partner in McKinsey’s London office and a co-leader specialising in employee health at the McKinsey Health Institute, a not-for-profit body seeking to improve human longevity and quality of life. Revealing that she’s seen “a growth in wellness washing recently”, she says: “We can’t yoga our way out of workplace wellbeing issues. Businesses need to invest in the underlying problems to create the necessary cultural change.”

Respondents to the Iosh poll reported that workplace risk assessments for stress, more flexible working arrangements and better management would all have had a more positive impact than the interventions that their firms had chosen to make. Many also said that they would have liked to have seen a broader range of healthy lifestyle offerings that went beyond the norm of gym memberships and yoga classes.

‘We can’t yoga our way out of workplace wellbeing issues’

“Wellbeing and mental health are massively important to any organisation,” says Joanne Payne, chief people officer at insurance company PIB Group. “But many will treat the matter as a box-ticking exercise, so that it looks like they’re doing a good job. Instead, they must adopt more of an authentic touch, treating the organisational health of the business with the same seriousness as its financial health.”

Wellbeing washing can also be seen in the large number of firms that mark mental health awareness days without adequately meeting the needs of their own workers. Research by Claro Wellbeing has found that, although 71% of employers celebrate such days in some way, only 36% provide mental health support that their staff rate as either good or outstanding.

Becky Corris, head of health and wellbeing at Heathrow Airport, believes that the problem stems from the difficulties that many firms have experienced in assessing the social component of their ESG efforts. 

“Many businesses have never measured the effects that their wellness programmes have on staff over a sustained period,” she says. “They often invest in the wrong places as a result and don’t see value.”

The need for cultural change

Metro Bank’s head of engagement and inclusion, Khushboo Patel, believes that “no business leader is intentionally doing the wrong thing, but they do need to be better at getting to the root cause”.

She adds that, while it may be easy to arrange a course of yoga sessions for staff, say, such interventions are unlikely to solve the fundamental problem of stress in workplaces where a lack of resources is the main contributor. 

‘When employers don’t really listen, wellbeing can quickly become a tick-box exercise‘

This means that it’s important for firms to listen carefully to their employees’ concerns to identify which changes are likely to have the most beneficial effect on organisational wellness. At Metro Bank, this is done by means of a twice-yearly survey that enables staff to give the senior leadership team anonymous feedback. 

“It’s a good way of identifying with your colleagues and understanding the challenges they’re facing – particularly those who may not feel comfortable telling their manager that they feel overworked,” Patel says.

At PIB Group, Payne agrees that the matter needs to be addressed at the highest echelons. The key to achieving this is to nurture a culture in which employees can communicate with senior leaders about the mental health concerns they’re dealing with – workplace stress, for instance. 

“The only ways in which senior managers will make a strong, authentic connection to wellbeing will be if they experience challenges themselves or they talk to others who are facing them,” she stresses. “E-learning platforms are still important in this respect, but they need to be used alongside proper communication channels and one-to-one support. When employers don’t really listen, wellbeing can quickly become a tick-box exercise.”