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What is ‘wellbeing washing,’ and is your org guilty of it?

Kate Pritchard
Kate Pritchard
Kate Pritchard, head of consulting at People Insight and a qualified leadership coach, is an employee experience expert and leadership coach with over 20 years' experience in the field of employee research. Kate is passionate about helping organizations create workplaces where employees and performance can thrive.

If you run in HR circles, you’ll be no stranger to the endless conveyor belt of buzzwords. From quiet quitting to loud quitting, loud laborers and even grumpy stayers, there’s always a new concept or phrase to come to terms with. Silly as they might sound, they very often describe pressing topical issues that impact the workplace in a very real way—requiring swift and effective measures to keep them in check. Over recent months, one concept that has been getting a lot of justified attention is “wellbeing washing.”

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More than ever, companies are paying attention to employee morale, mental health and overall wellbeing. This could, in part, be due to the many studies we’ve seen regarding the importance of good employee wellbeing, along with the negative impacts that may arise when employees aren’t treated well.

We have seen a lot of articles and insights detailing the value of a good wellbeing program, how to communicate with employees in an empathetic, compassionate way, and how to create a company culture that fosters high levels of employee wellbeing. But how much are our companies changing as a result? Are we actively doing better? Or are we just saying the right words but failing to deliver where it really counts?

What is wellbeing washing?

Wellbeing washing is a new term used when employees are presented with a false sense of support. Similar to greenwashing (an employer’s stated commitment to being eco-friendly that doesn’t actually hold true), wellbeing washing happens when a company appears to care about employee wellbeing on the surface, but when you dig a little deeper, you notice they are doing very little. They’re full of promises but deliver little to nothing.

One study published by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health found that 51% of employees believed their employer was guilty of wellbeing washing. They mentioned initiatives such as free fruit in the office, mental health first aiders and wellbeing walks—which sound lovely in theory, but not when serious issues such as unrealistic workloads, workplace bullying or stress-inducing deadlines aren’t being addressed.

Some employees even believe certain mental health initiatives to be fake promises. For example, some companies may offer quiet rooms designed for employees to take a breather—but managers within that same office may look unfavorably upon anyone actually using those designed spaces.

We’ve all been witness to wellbeing washing at one point or another. Take, for example, a company whose policies officially decry working over hours, but in practice, they publicly praise the employee who is continually first in and last out—ignoring the fact that they are visibly exhausted.

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Employees are starting to wise up. One study showed that, while 71% of employers celebrate events such as mental health awareness days, only 36% provide mental health support that their employees would rate as good or outstanding.

There is clearly an imbalance that exists—companies are getting away with saying the right words without putting their words into action. But how is this impacting your employees? Let’s look at the impact of wellbeing washing on mental health.

Increased stress and burnout

Unsurprisingly, a very real consequence of wellbeing washing is the inevitable stress and burnout. When nothing is done to address poor mental health in the workplace, the core issue still exists and generally gets worse over time. Employees might even feel pressured to maintain a façade of wellbeing despite how much they are struggling.

This is emotionally and mentally draining and generally results in an employee burning out and taking long-term time off—or simply leaving for another position. It isn’t enough for managers to know the signs and symptoms of high levels of stress at work; they need to offer practical solutions.

A lack of adequate support

Glossy social media campaigns and superficial perks are no substitute for substantive support at work. In fact, for employees who are truly struggling, such superficial efforts can feel like rubbing salt into the wound. Employees who are struggling need someone to turn to or processes they can lean on to lessen their load and clear their heads.

Feelings of isolation

People struggling with poor mental health often feel a sense of isolation. When a company claims to prioritize wellbeing but makes little to no effort to help affected employees, this sense of isolation can worsen.

What’s more, it can have an impact on an employee’s personal life. A company that offers no flexibility while also making great demands in terms of workload isn’t conducive to a healthy work/life balance. This, in turn, keeps employees from winding down and spending time with family and friends as they desperately try to keep up.

An exacerbation of existing symptoms and conditions

When mental health concerns aren’t addressed, more often than not, they get worse. When employees work for companies that make no real effort in terms of wellbeing, they’re less likely to seek help or open up about their struggles. After all, why would they if they believe that their employer is not genuinely interested in their mental health?

See also: Why solving family mental health is a business imperative

In situations like this, mental health issues worsen, and they can also take a toll on physical health. The link between physical health and mental health is well-established and might include weight gain, sleep issues and chronic health conditions.

A growing sense of apathy

Employees become more engaged when companies show they care. When an employee feels like a cog in a machine, when they believe their wellbeing isn’t being supported, they will likely grow disillusioned, disengaged and indifferent to their organization on the whole. This can lead to apathy and low motivation, ultimately impacting their performance.

Negative interactions and relationships

In an environment of wellbeing washing, employees may not form trusting, meaningful relationships with co-workers or line managers. If they feel they can’t open up or discuss their wellbeing, they might just shut down, meaning relationships deteriorate. Not only can this impact everyone’s wellbeing, but it would also have a very noticeable impact on collaboration, communication and productivity within the company.

An inability to cope with workplace pressures and demands

We all have days where our workload and workplace pressures feel like they are getting on top of us. For employees with wellbeing concerns, this can happen quicker, and the effects can feel more profound. In a workplace that does not genuinely address wellbeing, employees may lack the tools to deal with stress and adversity.

As we move into 2024, we in HR need to keep companies accountable. While we all have an individual responsibility to look after our own mental health and wellbeing, there is no denying that organizations also have a responsibility toward their employees. Toxic workplace practices and unrealistic expectations, coupled with a general unwillingness to create genuine wellbeing programs, result in disillusioned, frustrated and disengaged employees.

Businesses guilty of wellbeing washing will notice an increase in staff turnover as promising employees leave for forward-thinking organizations that do the right thing by their employees. Companies need to move beyond superficial gestures and commit to meaningful, evidence-based initiatives while building a culture of trust, support and open communication to allow employees to thrive at work.