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July 25, 2023

Wellbeing Washing: Is "Wellness" Coming Out in the Wash?

Kevin Dunne

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An apple a day keeps the doctor away, goes the old saying. But when it comes to wellbeing initiatives in the workplace, it appears that free fruit is just not cutting it. Not by a long way.

Despite the cost of poor mental health running at $1 trillion globally, according to the World Health Organization, significant numbers of businesses are not getting it done when it comes to looking after the wellbeing of their employees.

What Is Wellbeing Washing?

A recent study by Claro Wellbeing found that more than a third of employers are "wellbeing washing" – the practice of supporting mental health publicly but not supporting the workforce internally when it really comes down to it.

Claro's survey revealed that while 70 percent of workplaces celebrated mental health awareness days, only 30 percent of them actually had mental health support that was deemed good or outstanding by their employees.

Yes, it's all very well championing awareness campaigns (like Mental Health Month), but, much like the saying "a dog is not just for Christmas," wellbeing issues don't magically disappear when the event is over.

So lots of regular quizzes and games for fun, but consistently overworking people or expecting unpaid overtime is the sort of thing we’re talking about here. Table tennis and yoga, but no flexible working or employee assistance programs.

Do Businesses Really Care About Employees?

The research found that under half of businesses offered employees access to a helpline, while 44 percent offered counseling, and only 39 percent had mental health first aiders.

Digging a little deeper, the perception employees have of their employers' attempts to look after their wellbeing is even worse.

A report from global HR consultants MHR revealed that 62 percent of employees believed their employer did not care about their mental wellbeing, while 55 percent said they felt pressured to hide their mental health concerns at work. Ouch.

And in the wake of the likes of the Great Resignation and quiet quitting, it's clear that it makes business sense to take care of your workforce – or you risk retention and recruitment crises.

Or, as the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development puts it, "Investing in employee wellbeing can lead to increased resilience, better employee engagement, reduced sickness absence, and higher performance and productivity."

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Investing in Employee Wellbeing

So what should employers be providing, and what shouldn't they bother with, to avoid wellbeing washing? A recent poll by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health offered some interesting and, in some cases, controversial insights.

Examples of staff "benefits" not wanted or needed included:

  • Online "wellbeing services."
  • Employee assistance programs that focus on out-of-hours issues but don't deal with work-related matters.
  • Discounts on holidays (which are still too expensive).
  • Wellbeing walks (but with no time to go on them).
  • Fruit and ice cream.
  • Shopping discounts (but having to pay for staff parking).
  • Mental health first aid (described as a "box-ticking" exercise that can sometimes see untrained volunteers do more harm than good).

Moving on, benefits workers say they're not getting but would actually welcome included:

  • Work risk assessments for stress.
  • Access to a wider variety of healthy lifestyle classes, not just gym membership or yoga.
  • More support for women going through the menopause.
  • Better mental health support.
  • Better management.
  • Flexible working.
  • A more responsive attitude to worker surveys.

Food, if not fruit, for thought.

Further Resources

Mental Health in the Workplace
Personal Financial Stress and Wellbeing
How Happy Is Your Team Member?
What Is Corporate Social Responsibility?

Kevin Dunne

About the Author:

Kevin began training as a journalist on his local newspaper in 1989. He went on to spend 17 years at The Sun newspaper as a sports journalist and travel writer, and his work has been published in The Daily Telegraph, The Times and The Sunday Times. He joined the Mind Tools content team in 2019 and is also a keen golfer, traveler and eater.

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