In recent years, the concept of employee wellbeing has gained significant attention, and for good reason. A healthy and happy workforce is not only more productive but also contributes to the overall success and sustainability of a business. In fact, FTSE 100 companies that prioritise employee engagement and wellbeing, out-perform the rest of the FTSE 100 by an average of 10% (The Workforce View in Europe). However, with the increased focus on wellbeing, a new concern has emerged in the corporate world: ‘wellbeing washing.’
This article will explore what wellbeing washing is, why it’s a concern, and how small to medium-sized businesses can genuinely prioritise employee wellbeing.
The Gold Standard
I was spoiled with my first experience of wellbeing provision in the workplace. My wellbeing calling began at Hewlett Packard in Bristol 20 years ago. I remember being amazed at what they offered their staff on site, including me and one other as specified wellbeing consultants.
This wasn’t about just providing a gym, an exercise studio with a daily class timetable, squash courts, tennis courts and volleyball, it also included regular health and wellbeing assessments, massage, osteopathy, acupuncture, physiotherapy, occupational health nursing, alexander technique and chiropody. Also, lunchtime health and wellbeing checkups, workshops, stress management training, weight management courses, self-enquiry, smoking cessation, ergonomic assessments, flexible working hours, family fun days, away days, Friday reward and beer, big screen to watch world cups, subsidised restaurant….amazing right?
This is NOT wellbeing washing, this is an example of a really cool and comprehensive health and wellbeing programme in the workplace. This is a company that values their workforce and wants them to do their best work and be their best selves at work. It is a company that understands that a healthy and happy workforce creates a healthy and happy business, including productivity, creativity, focus, flow and yes, profits.
I know that there was a big workforce at that site 20 years ago and it doesn’t compare to a SMEs but still, the provision was high and if small to medium sized companies provided a fraction of this, what a difference it would make to the culture and happiness of the staff.
What actually is Wellbeing Washing?
Wellbeing washing refers to the superficial or insincere efforts made by businesses to appear as though they care about employee wellbeing without implementing meaningful changes. It’s akin to greenwashing in environmental contexts, where companies falsely claim to be environmentally friendly to improve their image. In the realm of wellbeing, this can manifest as empty gestures or token initiatives that don’t address the root causes of stress and dissatisfaction in the workplace.
For example, a weekly yoga class, it’s definitely nice to have but someone who is stacked up with work, who needs to get home to the kids and check in on an elderly parent, hasn’t got time to drop in to the yoga class after work. Don’t get me wrong here, I love yoga, I taught yoga for years and I still practice myself, however yoga and the like in the workplace, will often attract the people who already look after themselves and would probably go to an exercise class outside of work if it wasn’t provided there. A yoga or other exercise class would be great if it was part of a bigger programme of wellbeing provision.
Of course, any wellbeing provision has to fit the business environment and there needs to be cultural readiness and commitment. Wellbeing needs to be embedded into the culture and not seen as an add-on or something for the ‘worried well’, nor just a reactive service. You want your employees to thrive.
The Bottom Line
Research by Deloitte has shown that company-wide preventative activities which improve employee resilience can achieve a high ROI. As part of the activities, programmes that include stress management with tailored support have the biggest ROI at an average of £5 for every £1 invested, with the biggest ROI being 10:1. (Mental Health and Employers: Refreshing the case for investment, Deloitte 2020). ROI is the bottom line and a tangible way to measure how effective wellbeing programmes are. Also, a regular wellbeing check in with employees would be a priority to measure the effectiveness of any programme.
The Pitfalls of Wellbeing Washing
1. Eroding Trust: When employees perceive that their employer’s wellbeing initiatives are mere window dressing, trust and engagement suffer. Employees may become cynical, believing that their company is more interested in optics than in their actual wellbeing.
2. No Real Impact: Superficial wellbeing programs may not lead to the desired results. Employees might still struggle with stress, burnout, and low morale if the underlying issues in the workplace remain unaddressed and employees don’t get the support they need to enable them to build resilience and more easily manage their stress levels.
3. Wasted Resources: Businesses that engage in wellbeing washing may invest time and money into initiatives that do little to improve employee wellbeing, which is a wasted opportunity for both the employees and the organisation. Investing in long term wellbeing programmes that bolster employees stress management rather than sticking plaster services is key.
Moving Beyond Wellbeing Washing
Small to medium-sized businesses have the advantage of agility and the ability to make meaningful changes swiftly. Here are steps they can take to prioritise and enhance employee wellbeing genuinely:
1. Conduct Surveys and Feedback Sessions: Start by listening to your employees. Conduct anonymous surveys and hold regular feedback sessions to understand their concerns and needs. Use this data to inform your wellbeing strategy.
2. Tailor Wellbeing Initiatives: Develop initiatives that address specific challenges within your organisation. For example, if long working hours are a common concern, consider implementing flexible work arrangements or encouraging employees to take regular breaks. If stress-related problems are common, then taking a two pronged look at the underlying business causes of stress and how employees can manage their stress and build resilience, needs to be considered.
3. Promote Work-Life Balance: Encourage employees to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Set clear boundaries around working hours, don’t expect employees to be on call if that’s not part of their role and discourage excessive overtime. Also, don’t expect every employee to join in after work activities, sometimes getting home to their family is more important.
4. Mental Wellbeing Support: Partner with specific mental wellbeing services such as coaching and counselling. Promote a stigma-free environment and psychological safety, where employees feel comfortable seeking help when needed and they feel safe to be themselves in the workplace.
5. Leadership Training: Train managers and leaders to support their teams effectively. Strong leadership is crucial for fostering a positive workplace culture. Toxic positivity needs to be part of that training, some leaders expect their employees to be positive and ‘up’ all or most of the time. This is unhealthy and puts pressure on people to mask up which can lead to an unhappy, unproductive and stressed out workforce.
6. Transparency and Authenticity: Be transparent about your intentions and efforts to improve wellbeing. Authenticity is key to building trust with employees. If leaders are authentic and themselves, it gives employees permission to be their authentic selves too.
7. Measure Progress: Regularly assess the impact of your wellbeing initiatives. Use data to track improvements in employee satisfaction, productivity, and overall wellbeing. Repeat the anonymous surveys and have regular feedback sessions.
Wellbeing washing is a new concern in the business world, but small to medium-sized businesses have the opportunity to rise above this trend by genuinely prioritising employee wellbeing. Listening to employees and tailoring initiatives to meet their needs is a priority. Making a budget available and not being restricted by investing in the right services for the business is imperative. There is an opportunity here for these businesses to create a workplace where employee wellbeing is not just a slogan but a lived reality. Ultimately, a happier and healthier workforce benefits everyone involved, from employees to employers and beyond.
As part of one of my wider wellbeing programmes for SMEs, I offer a wellbeing check in audit for companies. This enables employees to give feedback on how they feel at work, how stress affects them at work and also gives them an opportunity to pinpoint factors that affect their mental wellbeing. The questionnaire follows a route of looking at the 6 pillars of happiness at work – Autonomy, Connection, Contribution, Fairness, Growth and Purpose. The audit comes with a caveat; Management teams in companies need to be in a place where they are willing to accept the honesty of their employees and embrace taking action to genuinely improve the wellbeing in the workplace.
If anything in this article has piqued your interest or if you’re curious about my wellbeing check in audit, please get in touch firstname.lastname@example.org