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7 Questions to Ask to Avoid Wellbeing Washing

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Employer Branding, Talent Attraction, Brand Authenticity

Do your wellbeing initiatives make for a happier workforce or are they merely a box ticking exercise that lacks authenticity and therefore effectiveness? …

Sports washing, we all know about. It’s going on right now in Qatar where the highly questionable reputation of an oil-rich Gulf state is supposedly being improved by hosting the World Cup.

Except of course, it has made the already dubious reputation of FIFA worse by association, to the extent where it’s now hard to see whose brand values have been eroded more by the whole farce.

Greenwashing, we know about. The widespread practice of claiming environmentally conscious credibility, whilst retaining certain climate harming practices. Outdoor clothing firm Patagonia’s recent transformation into a company that diverts all its profit to environmental causes has set a high bar for any company seeking ‘green’ credibility.

And we can also add Wellbeing Washing (or Well Washing) to the list. A misalignment of talk and actions relating to employee’s welfare and, usually, mental health.

Coaching company Hintsa has outlined Seven Sins of wellbeing Washing, which seem to sum up the issue quite well.

This year’s CIPD Health and Wellbeing at Work Survey says stress and mental health related absences will increase with the next generation, yet only half of employers are taking a strategic approach to health and wellbeing.

  • 67% of employees are experiencing moderate to high levels of stress
  • 28% had seen their productivity negatively impacted because of stress within the last two years

But employers continue to drag their feet when it comes to effective wellbeing initiatives. Research from Claro Wellbeing says more than a third (35 per cent) of businesses are ‘wellbeing washing’.

Its survey of 1,000 employees found that seven in 10 (71 per cent) of workplaces celebrated mental health awareness days, but only a third (36 per cent) of organisations’ mental health support was deemed “good” or “outstanding” by their employees.

Effective wellbeing initiatives

The question is why aren’t those initiatives hitting home with the workforce?

Some companies may just pick a wellness activity for employees without considering their biggest wants and needs in the workplace or the type of activity they would like to do.

For any kind of wellbeing initiative to work within an employer brand story it needs employee consultation. You don’t need to install an Olympic-sized swimming pool like Nike, just give employees what they really want.

The aim should be to encourage employee involvement to a level that creates a sense of investment in their own wellness and growth, while also building stronger ties across the company. Anything else misses the target.

It doesn’t have to be an initiative based around mental health or physical wellbeing. Right now, one of the biggest pressures on the mental health of workers everywhere is financial. In a cost-of-living crisis, practical help with financial matters would be a more effective mental health aid than a social media campaign on an awareness day, suggests Rachel Fox, Director of Business Development for Sunny Day Fund: “Employees are increasingly leaning on employers to provide more resources around employee wellness. This is an opportunity for employers to introduce programs that provide solutions to employee stressors.

“For example, if employees are financially stressed, living paycheck-to-paycheck, employers can introduce a payroll-deducted, employer-rewarded emergency savings account. This not only teaches employees the basics of financial literacy, it actually delivers a payroll-deducted vehicle that creates meaningful change in their financial situation.

“These are the kinds of solutions employees are looking for... not just being given a brochure on how to improve, but tools that actually helps them with the action steps of tangible improvement.”

Workforce expectations

Nearly every workplace offers something beyond a salary now, and workers have come to expect a package that includes more than just paid holiday and tea making facilities. They also know what works and what doesn’t. Free gym memberships aren’t for everyone. So, for employers it must sometimes feel like they are on a hiding to nothing. Can’t do right for doing wrong.

Brian Crane, founder of Callsmart believes some initiatives are just not fit for purpose: “Weight loss through mindful eating programs is a popular well-being trend that doesn't live up to the hype. Even though most of these wellness programs promise extreme results, dramatic transformations don't just happen overnight. At least, not as you are led to believe by those slick marketing campaigns. Every person's body is different. Plus, any mindful eating discipline will never work out if underlying health issues exist. Appearances should never be looked at as signs of good health.”

It’s a typical example perhaps of a well-intentioned scheme being put in place without real thought as to the practicalities or the intended audience.

Zeeshan Arif, CEO and Founder at software developer, Whizpool, suggests: “In my experience, I think the one thing that really makes a difference in employee well-being is the ability for employees to have a voice. When you have people who are empowered to speak up about what they need, and you listen to them and act on their feedback, it helps create a culture of trust and respect. And that's not just good for employees—it's also good for recruiting.

“I’ve found that when I create an environment where people feel like they can be themselves, they'll naturally want to work with me because they know I'm going to take their ideas seriously. And then, when they see how those ideas make a difference in the company and even improve their own lives, they'll want to stay with me.”

There is a certain ambiguity to those sorts of commitments. ‘Bring your real self to work’. Well, who else is going to turn up? Without a platform in place to allow people to do that, it becomes a mere platitude.

“Our wellness initiatives, especially those taken after the Covid-19 phase, have benefited in attracting talent and improving employee retention,” adds Brian Crane. “This is perhaps why we are proud that we don't see employee churn or quiet quitting at the workplace more often. For example, our weekly one-to-one meetings have helped us create safe open spaces where grievances are shared. At the same time, our optional 'Mental wellness workshops' allow team members to choose from Talkspace or Happify subscriptions every month to avoid too much toxic productivity.

“We believe that organizational success fully depends on the success of their employees. Some of our policies include hybrid work options that allow a positive work-life balance, compensation policies that hinge on productivity, one-on-one personal meetings, and mental wellness holidays have always been part of our workplace policies. This commitment helps us to ensure positive team morale and efficient work productivity levels.

“The effectiveness of this policy is a critical reason we have high employee retention rates and loyalty.”

There are plenty of popular wellbeing initiatives on offer and among the most popular are flexible working hours, fitness initiatives, volunteering programs, yoga, and meditation and many more. But for wellbeing to be more than a box-ticking exercise it needs to be done in consultation with employees and must offer tangible results.

Ask these questions before you invest in that ping pong table for the office.

  • Why are we doing this?
  • How important is this to us?
  • What does success look like for us? 
  • Are our efforts commensurate to the outcomes we want?
  • How can we make this wellness program as relevant as possible to the goals of employees? 
  • Can we give them a sense of ownership over it?
  • How can we make them feel more connected to each other by doing it?



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