What is ‘wellbeing washing’, and how can leaders avoid it?

What is ‘wellbeing washing’, and how can leaders avoid it?

By Phoebe Armstrong

Recent research has uncovered a trend of organisations taking a tokenistic approach to wellness, or ‘wellbeing washing’. Does your organisation walk the talk?

In recent years, organisations across diverse industries have come to recognise the indispensable role that employee wellbeing plays in fostering productivity, building a positive work environment and driving long-term success.

However, recent research has indicated that when it comes to wellbeing some companies are not practising what they preach.

Last year, a global study by McKinsey Health Institute indicated a significant disconnect between how leaders perceived the state of mental health and wellbeing in their organisations and the way their employees saw it. 

The study showed an average 22 per cent gap between employer and employee perceptions, with leaders consistently rating all aspects of wellbeing more favourably than their people. 

Researchers concluded that many employers’ wellbeing initiatives, however well-intentioned, lacked a systemic approach to address the root causes of poor mental health. This was particularly true of toxic workplace behaviour, which was identified as the biggest driver of burnout symptoms in all 15 countries assessed, including Australia.

Employers’ poor understanding of the true state of workforce wellbeing has led some employees to accuse them of taking a performative and tokenistic approach, otherwise known as ‘wellbeing washing’.

What does wellbeing washing look like?

Similar to greenwashing, wellbeing washing happens when a company places more focus on appearing to care about wellbeing than they do on truly taking care of employees. 

Dr Kate Daley, Head of Psychology at workplace wellbeing platform Unmind, offers some common examples of what wellbeing washing can look like, including: 

  • Giving a talk on burnout, but not having any strategies in place to address it
  • Offering free yoga classes while employees are working 60-hour weeks
  • Running a mental health awareness day campaign on social media without having a long-term commitment to improving mental health internally
  • Raising money for a mental health charity at a company event but not offering support to the organisation’s own people.

“This can leave employees feeling unsupported or uncared for, which in turn can lead to disengagement and employee turnover. It not only gives the impression that the organisation is only ‘ticking a box’, but it also means that wellbeing isn’t being effectively addressed,” she says.

Earlier this year, a report published by Claro Wellbeing specifically assessed the extent and nature of wellbeing washing in the UK. Researchers found that almost one in four employees (38 per cent) believed their employer engaged in wellbeing washing. 

Survey respondents reported that while 71 per cent of organisations took part in mental health awareness initiatives, only 36 per cent offered ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ mental health benefits to their staff.

According to Dr Michelle McQuaid, Founder of the Wellbeing Lab, actions that employees perceive as wellbeing washing are not always deliberate.

“I think in some cases, yes, [wellbeing washing] is genuinely happening because workplaces have come to understand that wellbeing is something that their workers really want and value,” she says.

“However, in a lot of cases, we’re finding there’s a fair bit of misunderstanding as to what wellbeing is, and how wellbeing is supported at work.

“So it’s about organisations working more closely with their people to understand what wellbeing means to them, educating their people about all the things they do to support wellbeing and [emphasising] that they are happy to take feedback and new ideas if some of those things aren’t hitting the mark.”

“Don’t ever presume wellbeing is ‘done’ – it’s a journey.” – Dr Kate Daley, Head of Psychology at Unmind

Aligning your wellbeing strategy with employees’ needs

To avoid inadvertently engaging in wellbeing washing, Daley advises following a three-stage process to ensure that your wellbeing efforts are aligned with the actual needs of your employees.

1. Measure. 

“Ask employees what their needs are. Do they need more manager support, better skills to support peers, more access to mental health support or greater psychological safety?”

She stresses the importance of measuring the right thing: outcomes that influence employee wellbeing and their experience at the organisation. As she puts it, “Measure what matters.”

2. Understand

Taking time to unpack and understand the data you gather from both employees and leaders is an important step in closing the gap between organisations’ perceptions of their people’s wellbeing and the reality.

“Once an effective measurement strategy is in place, look at the insights and ask if your perceptions are accurate,” says Daley. “Does your perception match what you’re hearing from employees? Is there data to support your perception? Are employees aware of all the wellbeing initiatives that are happening behind the scenes?” 

3. Act

Once the appropriate measures have been identified, set clear success metrics to get an accurate picture of what’s working and what’s not, says Daley.

“These [metrics] will vary depending on which factor you’re targeting. For example, if the target is to reduce stress in a team, measure stress levels pre- and post-implementation of your strategy. If the target is to increase manager support, measure employee ratings of how supported they feel before and after manager training.” 

Transparency is also crucial, she says. As well as ensuring the workforce is well-versed in the wellbeing support and offerings that their employer can provide, it’s also important to be transparent about any actions or resources that you may not be able to provide and the reasons why that is.

“By making the efforts meaningful and meeting real needs, the authenticity shines through and it’s no longer seen as tokenistic,” she says.

Creating an authentic culture of wellbeing 

One common misconception about workplace wellbeing is that it sits purely on the shoulders of HR, says Daley. In reality, wellbeing is the responsibility of everyone in the organisation, including and especially executive leadership. 

Part of HR’s role is to use data to tailor interventions and initiatives and to build the business case to implement them. Another important HR action is to keep a finger on the pulse of company culture and its impact on wellbeing.

“Culture is absolutely crucial – that means the shared values, expectations and attitudes held by employees…. You can have the best wellbeing tools in the world, but if you have a toxic culture, you’re not going to have a healthy workplace,” she says.

Daley also suggests leaders set an example for their workforces by walking the talk when it comes to caring for their own wellbeing, getting involved with company wellbeing initiatives and keeping the subject on their day-to-day agendas.

“To move away from any danger of wellbeing washing, make sure you have a data-informed wellbeing strategy, interventions at individual, team and organisation level and that you keep it under review,” she says.

“Don’t ever presume wellbeing is ‘done’ – it’s a journey.”

*This article first appeared on the ahri.com.au website

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