Our recent research, published in People Management, shows that more than one in three (35% of) organisations have been “wellbeing washing”.
In this article, we’ll dig into what the term means, give some examples, and explore how can you can avoid wellbeing washing at your organisation.
What is wellbeing washing?
Wellbeing washing is when an organisation makes a public display of support for mental health initiatives but lacks adequate mental wellbeing support. It's a form of not practising what you preach.
Such displays give the false impression that an organisation's track record on supporting its employees' wellbeing is better than it (really) is. Wellbeing washing leaves employees feeling their organisation is being dishonest and even hypocritical, which, in time, harms its reputation and brand.
By wellbeing washing, an organisation exposes an inconsistency between what it says and what it does.
Our survey found that more than one-third (71%) of organisations held mental health awareness days. But just one-third of organisations received a good or outstanding rating for their mental health support by their employees.
Similar forms of virtue signalling are seen across other aspects of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG). For example, a much more well-known trend is “greenwashing” – when organisations give the false impression that their track record on climate change is better than it actually is.
Examples of wellbeing washing
Let's explore some examples of the types of communications or activities that could constitute wellbeing washing, if an organisation carries them out while not offering their employees an adequate employee wellbeing support.
Any activities that raise awareness of mental health are encouraged – but it’s also crucial to take your employees’ wellbeing seriously as an organisation.
Doing any of the following activities, while not supporting staff mental health and wellbeing, can be considered to be wellbeing washing:
- Publishing social media posts to celebrate mental health awareness
- Publishing blog posts around mental health awareness
- Putting out internal communications around mental health awareness, for example in Slack, MS Teams, intranet, posters
- Participating in fundraising via sponsored activities, like bake sales, coffee mornings, to celebrate mental health awareness
- Putting on sporting events, like runs, swims, walks, to celebrate mental health awareness
- Inviting guest industry speakers and celebrities to give presentations, then posting about these publicly, for example, on social media
There are a few dates throughout the year where organisations are most at risk of wellbeing washing – if they don’t provide mental health support for their staff but try and raise awareness of the below:
- Red January, the mental wellbeing movement
- Blue Monday, the third Monday of January
- Mental Health Awareness Week, which this year takes every May
Why does wellbeing washing happen?
Wellbeing washing is often the result of the pressures to compete for talent. But it can also be the result of companies being a little too ‘social media happy’ during mental health awareness week.
Indeed, social media is often where organisations will participate in wellbeing washing. Our data reveals one in four employees said their organisation has posted publicly about mental wellbeing through this channel.
Wellbeing washing often happens with the best of intentions. Talking publicly about mental health and wellbeing is, of course, a positive thing.
But the problem usually stems from poor communication between departments in an organisation and pressure from management to reduce recruitment costs and improve the employee value proposition.
Wellbeing washing is usually most evident to those who work (or have worked) for the organisation. They’ll have a strong feeling about whether the organisation has the authority to speak about the subject of mental wellbeing.
Can wellbeing, benefits and HR leaders do anything to avoid wellbeing washing?
In our experience, wellbeing, benefits and HR leaders are extremely cognisant of – and repulsed by – wellbeing washing. However, for organisations new to the term, here are some steps you can take to avoid it.
1. Ensure you have a decent wellbeing programme and policies around mental health
Wellbeing washing only occurs when an organisation doesn’t have a robust mental wellbeing programme. The best way to avoid it, therefore, is to create an adequate mental wellbeing programme or ensure the programme you have is up to scratch.
You shouldn’t devise a mental wellbeing programme in isolation from other forms of wellbeing. Instead, treat employee wellbeing as comprising three pillars: mental, physical and financial.
Here are our tips on getting started.
A. Create policies and guidelines. Work with team leaders across the organisation to outline both sides of the employer-employee relationship when it comes to mental health. What should each party expect of each other? Your policies should include info on how mental health issues should be recognised and supported, as well as guidelines on how and when to escalate mental health concerns.
B. Provide training. Training is a critical component of any mental health and wellbeing programme. Managers and employees should be provided with training on how to recognise the signs and symptoms of mental health problems, how to provide support, and how to access resources. At Claro Wellbeing, we offer a two-day Financial First Aider training course, enabling team members to become capable of guiding employees through money worries and steer them to resources that can help them.
C. Offer support services. Provide access to mental health services and support is crucial. For instance, many organisations offer access to Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), counselling services and other resources, to support employees who need help.
D. Create a strong organisational culture. Your organisation will only thrive when talent people are bringing their best to work. It’s essential then that your culture promotes open communication, empathy and understanding – the linchpins of effective teamwork. Ensure your teams have psychological safety, which Harvard Business Review defines as “the belief that one can speak up without risk of punishment or humiliation”. And ensure your leaders set the example of taking work-life balance seriously.
E. Obtain and use employee feedback. Good employee wellbeing programmes apply the latest thinking in human resources organisational culture. Great ones make employees an active component of their design. You should seek feedback from your employees at regular intervals throughout your mental wellbeing programme efforts, to see the ways in which it can be improved.
2. Communicate the purpose and value of your wellbeing programme to your employees
It’s important to focus on building trust and confidence among employees that your organisation is genuinely committed to supporting their mental health and wellbeing. You can do this by focusing on solving the challenges that hold their mental wellbeing back.
For example, right now the cost of living crisis is causing heaps of financial stress, with some 67% of employees saying money worries are even affecting their work performance. That’s why it’s essential that employers support their employees with financial wellbeing programmes, to help them combat money worries and bring out the best in their employees.
At all times, be transparent about the scope, goals, and resources of your mental wellbeing programme. Solicit employee feedback and buy-in. And provide regular updates and reports to employees about the progress of the program, including any challenges or successes.
3. Set expectations correctly with your management
Communicate the potential benefits of investing in employee mental health and wellbeing, such as increased productivity, improved employee retention, and reduced absenteeism. Where possible, provide data and research to support your claims.
For example, one in five employees say they’d leave if the cost of living crisis worsens. And employees are spending on average as much as three-and-a-half days per year carrying out personal finance task, while at work. Also, the more an employee earns, the more likely they are to take a sick day as a result of money worries.
But also be clear about the limitations of the programme. Explain as early on into building your strategy as possible that premature announcements or public communications around your programme can only be made if you have no doubts your strategy is paying off.
4. Be the voice of reason with your external comms around wellbeing
Ensure that your organisation's messaging around mental health and wellbeing is genuine and accurate. This involves working closely with marketing and communications teams to ensure that messaging is consistent across all channels. It also means establishing yourself as a filter for any social media posts or activities that your marketing/comms team is producing around your benefits and wellbeing programmes.
By acting as a strategic partner to your marketing and comms teams, you can ensure that any public displays are genuine and credible, which can help to build trust and confidence among employees and other stakeholders.
This guidance is opinion only – please seek legal advice when it comes to your obligations around staff mental health and wellbeing.
To sum up:
Wellbeing washing is when an organisation makes a public display of support for mental health initiatives, but lacks adequate mental wellbeing support. Basically, not practising what they preach.
The theme common to examples of wellbeing washing is publicly celebrating mental health initiatives, while not having a robust employee wellbeing programme in place.
To avoid wellbeing washing, organisations can:
- Ensure they have a robust employee wellbeing programme
- Communicate the purpose and value of your wellbeing programme to your employees
- Set expectations correctly with your management
- Be the voice of reason with your marketing and comms teams
Get our CIPD-cited stats on financial wellbeing
As our CIPD-cited report reveals, one in five UK employees plans to leave their company if the cost of living crisis worsens. They're spending are each spending an average of three-and-a-half days per year on personal finance tasks, while at work.