How to spot wellbeing washing at work

Cacasian business woman call center having headache in office place. Attractive young beautiful employee worker sit on table, wear headset and use laptop computer talk to support customer at workplace
Compulsory training courses during your lunch break - that's not really a break is it? Photo: Getty

You’re in the office, exhausted and looking forward to a break, but your company has scheduled a talk about employee wellbeing over lunch. It’s an hour long – compulsory – and is about the importance of taking regular breaks. When the meeting is finally over you return to your desk to work, having missed out on your lunch break. Later, you spot a post on your work’s Instagram page about the tactics they’re using to prevent burnout.

Wellbeing washing – the practice of firms appearing to support mental health outwardly but not supporting the workforce internally – is common. According to a survey of 1,000 people by Claro Wellbeing, more than a third (35%) of businesses do it. Although seven in 10 workplaces celebrated mental health awareness days, only a third of organisations’ mental health support was deemed good or outstanding by their employees.

Meanwhile, the number of people struggling with their mental health is on the rise. People are facing more intense working days than ever, with less time for their private lives and an increased risk of burnout. Workers are having to pack more into their days, leading to exhaustion – while their pay has stagnated. And the cost-of-living crisis, on top of the long-lasting fallout of the pandemic, is sending anxiety and stress levels sky-high.

Why companies engage in wellbeing washing

Wellbeing washing does very little to address these problems, yet there are a number of reasons why businesses do it. Amy Wilkinson, a career coach, says companies may use it to attract new talent. “They know wellbeing is becoming increasingly important so they want to look like an attractive employer,” she says.

“Companies may want to use wellbeing washing to enhance their brand image to end consumers or to their direct customers,” she adds. “Some businesses expect a level of wellness tick-boxing these days.”

And often, budgets aren’t allocated for employee health. “Those tasked with setting the wellbeing agenda don’t have the right resources, so resort to doing what ‘looks good’ versus what’s right and truly supports the wellbeing of the team,” says Wilkinson.

Although the money may be directed elsewhere, it’s in employers’ financial interests to take care of their workers properly. Burnout, exhaustion, mental distance from the job, insecurities, and uncertainty have intensified absenteeism, presenteeism, and labour turnover – all of which are costly to businesses. Research from Deloitte found that the cost to employers of poor mental health has increased to £56bn in 2020 to 2021, compared to £45bn in 2019.

two office workers lying on the grass with their shoes off
This is what a proper lunch break looks like. Photo: Getty

Signs of wellbeing washing

It’s not always easy to tell if your company is genuinely supportive of the workforce or trying to enhance their PR profile. However, there are some telltale signs they may be guilty of wellbeing washing, Wilkinson says.

Toxic practices, limited resources and a lack of psychological safety – so people can’t speak up without fear of reprisal – are all signs of a problematic workplace. Crucially, these issues may not match up with what the company advertises. The Claro research found that more than a third of businesses recognised the importance of good mental health on social media, but only 30% thought their employers were considerate of their wellbeing.

“The signs of wellbeing washing are a business that talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk with supporting its employees,” Wilkinson explains. ‘This might include grand gestures and heavy PR around their wellbeing schemes, but in reality not giving employees adequate support or resources to get the job done.”

There may be a chillout area that nobody has time to use. Your company may offer perks like free cooked meals, but only to encourage people to stay in the office and work longer hours. Your boss may encourage you to speak up if you’re struggling with your workload, but pile more onto your plate. And if you bring up overworking, your concerns may be dismissed.

“Businesses might hold wellbeing days where nobody has the time to attend because they’re flat out with work,” says Wilkinson. “They may get in guest experts to talk about burnout and mental health for a one-off talk, but then fail to provide ongoing support. This one is big for me as I’m often asked to do talks on burnout - but I want to know the commitment is there to support people in the future before I agree to it.”

The problem with wellbeing washing

Often, wellbeing washing can be more damaging than doing nothing at all to support workers. Firstly, it does nothing to address issues faced by many, like chronic stress and fatigue.

But also, appearing to be supportive publicly – but continuing with practices that directly impact people’s psychological health – undermines trust among workers. One in six people say their employer lost trust as a result of wellbeing washing or poor conduct, and in 10% of cases it reduced share value.

So, how can companies support employees properly? It’s important to find out how workers are feeling and to provide an environment which allows people to speak up about a problem. Listening to people is crucial. A cheaper gym membership won’t help someone who is too tired to workout, but a four-day week, flexible hours or strict ring-fencing of working hours may help people.

And being honest is key – if there are issues, bring them to light and work to address them. Cultural change takes time, but it’s a great investment for both employers and employees.

Watch: UK study points to benefits of 4-day work week

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