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Wellbeing Washing: When Businesses Just Don't Get It

Written by Sarah Norman

Review by Alina Ivan

Tagged in

  • wellbeing
  • stress
  • anxiety
  • depression


Sep 4, 2023, 8 min read

Never heard of wellbeing washing? The chances are you have come across it many times and didn’t know it. This problematic business practice can be at worst intentional, and at best, simply ignorant.

Here, we’re doing a deep dive on wellbeing washing; what it is, why it keeps happening, how to avoid it in your business, how to get your workplace wellbeing spot on, and why real workplace wellbeing is important for the business as well as the individual.

Wellbeing Washing: When Businesses Just Don't Get It

At Augmentive, we aim to provide holistic, tailored mental health support to everyone so they can live their life to the fullest, so if you have questions about wellbeing washing, think it might be happening at your workplace, or are keen to find out more about our revolutionary workplace wellbeing platform, we’re here to help.

What is wellbeing washing?

Wellbeing washing is a term used in the context of a business to describe the act of putting certain wellbeing initiatives in place that make the business look good publicly, while not properly supporting employees’ mental health and wellbeing behind closed doors. In a nutshell, it’s an initiative that looks good on paper, but is actually useless in practice.

You might have seen an organisation post on social media about how they are donating some of their profits to a health charity, but within their organisation they offer no health-boosting initiatives. Or perhaps you have seen a job posting for a company who offers mental health days off, while simultaneously piling too much work onto their employees, making those days seem impossible to actually take.

According to research from the Society of Occupational Medicine, 1 in 3 businesses are thought to be wellbeing washing, so it’s a big problem affecting employees every day.

Why does wellbeing washing happen?

It’s no surprise businesses want to make their brand or organisation look attractive to customers, clients and potential job candidates. Doing so can mean attracting the best talent in their industry, and ultimately, boosting profits. A no brainer, right?

Of course. Except the consequences of making a business look supportive of employee health, while not putting this into practice day to day, means sooner or later the cracks will appear and employees will notice.

What is workplace "wellbeing washing?"

A survey by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health found 51% of employees thought their employer was guilty of wellbeing washing, mentioning initiatives like shop discounts, mental health first aid, and free healthy snacks as examples. These things may look and sound great, but don’t actually move the needle if the rest of the workday is tainted by high stress, long hours and a challenging work environment.

Why real workplace wellbeing is important

The World Health Organization states that almost 60% of the world’s population is working, and since many of us spend the majority of our waking hours in the workplace, it is our right to enjoy a safe, healthy environment. For those with mental health issues, finding a supportive environment to work in can help with recovery, and improve their confidence and social functioning.

One 2022 survey revealed that 67% of professionals are experiencing stress at moderate to high levels and that almost 35% of employees report the stress they experience at work is having a negative impact on them. Studies also have found stressed, unhappy employees tend to be unproductive employees, so investing in workplace wellbeing and mental health not only benefits the employee, it benefits the business too.

According to recent research by EDN, reported on by HR News:

  • 86% of employees would be more likely to leave a job if it did not support their wellbeing
  • 83% are more attracted to working at an organisation that demonstrates a “progressive company culture”
  • 45% felt first aid for mental health training would be a good addition to their benefits package
  • 62% expressed positive interest in focused training to help create a more positive work-life balance
  • On a related note, a survey by XpertHR reported by People Management says that 83% of chief HR officers say they’re facing a “significant” talent retention problem!

By improving the overall experience for employees in the workplace, a business may start to see higher productivity, less staff turnover, and as a result, higher profits.

There are tangible benefits to real workplace wellbeing

There are many reasons people are unhappy in their job, so it can feel overwhelming to know where to begin if you want to improve your business practices. By understanding how people feel about the workplace at the moment, and implementing some small changes, you could boost your employee wellbeing, retention, and bottom line.

Why it benefits businesses to do better

According to a poll by mental health charity Mind involving 2,060 adults across a wide cross-section of industries, respondents were asked to think about how they would feel about their workplace if wellbeing initiatives were introduced. The results were:

  • 60% said they would recommend the organisation to friends as a good place to work
  • 59% said they would feel more loyal to the organisation
  • 56% said they would be more productive at work
  • 50% said they would be less likely to take time off
  • 34% said they would be less likely to leave and go work for another company, even for a 10% salary increase
  • 21% said they would accept a pay freeze or smaller pay rise

Burying your head in the sand is not an effective strategy for addressing any wellbeing gaps in your business. Not only does this negatively affect the lives of your employees, but it can negatively affect your bottom line as a business. By creating an environment where your employees feel supported, stress-free and happy, you could see greater employee retention, greater productivity, improved performance, and thus higher profits.

How to avoid wellbeing washing

Do you think you might be wellbeing washing and didn’t realise until now? This can happen to many businesses who are coming from a good place by trying to implement changes for their employees, but are missing the mark.

How to avoid wellbeing washing

By acknowledging you may have engaged in some wellbeing washing, and stopping thinking of employee wellbeing as another box to tick on your to-do list, you can start to take action on a more positive future for your employees and your business; one where everyone benefits.  

Here are a few things you can do to make sure your business is not engaging in wellbeing washing:

  • Check what you share: Before you post anything on social media, write health initiatives in a job description, or include anything related to employee wellbeing in your marketing, check you are putting your money where your mouth is, so to speak! Do your employees feel they have somewhere to turn for mental health support that is personalised to them, rather than a general pamphlet or health and safety style advice and a subscription to a wellbeing app? Are the things you say you are supporting actually put into practice within the business? Do an audit on everything you share publicly and check that your employees would agree behind the scenes.
  • Put yourself in the shoes of your employee: Just as you have done an audit of your marketing, you should also take a closer look at your business through the lens of someone who works there. Is the “open-door policy” you preach about really what you are communicating through your words and actions? Are you offering your employees any initiatives at present that aren’t being utilised? If not, why not?
  • Don’t mistake ‘fun’ for ‘wellbeing’: It might seem like a great idea to replace chairs with beanbags, celebrate Bring Your Dog to Work Day, or implement beer pong on Fridays. These things are fun and could relieve some stress, but they are not a solution to real problems. These should only be implemented on top of existing initiatives that make a tangible difference.

How to get your workplace wellbeing right

The World Health Organization recommends several measures are taken to ensure the mental health of employees is protected at work. These include:

  • Training managers on mental health: This enables them to identify and address any issues faced by employees to support them where job stress is concerned.
  • Training for employees on mental health: This helps to reduce stigma around talking about mental health issues in the workplace.
  • Providing stress management resources: This could be training on how to manage your stress levels, the encouragement of group leisure activities, or even regular therapy or counselling via a workplace wellness platform like ours.
How to get a workplace wellbeing strategy right

A workplace wellbeing strategy often depends on the type of business you run, the specifics of your employees’ day-to-day and several other factors, so advice on workplace wellbeing is not a one-size-fits-all approach. That said, here are a few general tips that will apply to most businesses:

  • Ask questions: You can’t understand your employees’ experience unless you ask them about it. Be honest with your staff and let them know you are interested in improving their workplace. Ask them what they feel is lacking. You may want to do this anonymously so they feel fully comfortable sharing their concerns. It may also help to conduct a workplace stress risk assessment.
  • Create a structured Employee Assistance Programme (EAP): If you don’t already have one, and EAP shows your employees you plan to be consistent with initiatives. This should include things that will help staff based on what they say is needed, such as financial wellbeing support during the cost-of-living crisis, flexible hours to make childcare easier, or access to mental health support which would otherwise be an added cost to the individual.
  • Prioritise mental health in your business: You cannot go wrong by making sure your employees have access to the help they need, whether this is through a health insurance plan or a service like Augmentive, which gives your employees access to a network of 1,000+ qualified practitioners with no barriers to support.
  • Check in regularly: Change won’t happen overnight, so it’s important to have regular check-ins with your employees to ask how they are, what tasks they are struggling with at the moment, and how you can support them in their role.
  • Forget trying to be perfect: You do not need to make a hundred changes immediately, and this could even do more harm than good by overwhelming employees with change. Start with small tweaks to your daily practices that could make a big difference to your team.
  • Empower your employees: Give them more agency to make decisions for themselves, and train line managers to identify and address mental health issues within their teams.
  • Measure your progress: Measuring is the only way to know if your strategies are working. Take stock of how your employees feel now, and then ask them the same questions again in a few months once your changes have taken effect.
  • Be proactive: Don’t wait until it’s too late to make a positive change. Start as you mean to go on and create a workplace that is based on openness, positivity, and genuinely helpful initiatives that could change the lives of your employees.

You can empower your employees to take control of their mental health and performance by offering your employees access to Augmentive’s network of 900+ qualified practitioners. With a holistic network of specialists, on-demand ‘ask a therapist’ functions, quick and flexible booking, a dedicated account manager and much more, we offer a service for your employees that not only helps them maintain great mental health in the workplace, but ultimately maintains and improves the performance of your teams.

Not sure where to start?

We offer a free 15 minute consultation so that we can guide you to the most relevant professionals