The true damage of wellbeing washing in the workplace

A quick summary:

  • What is wellbeing washing?
  • Signs of wellbeing washing in the workplace
  • How does wellbeing washing impact your business
  • Conclusion on wellbeing washing

When supporting your employees' mental, physical and emotional wellbeing, it must be genuine. It cannot be half-hearted, meaningless or generic. In other words, you mustn’t fall into the wellbeing washing trap.

In recent months, HR publications and business magazines have been discussing a new terminology, ‘wellbeing washing’. But what is it and why should you care? Well, that’s exactly what we’re going to talk about.

This guide offers everything you need to know about wellbeing washing, including definitions, signs, and the severe consequences of letting it overrule your wellbeing efforts. Let’s get started!

An employee feeling exhausted at her desk
What is wellbeing washing for employees?

What is wellbeing washing in the workplace?

A relatively new term, wellbeing washing refers to the false sense of staff support offered by an employer. It’s the instance of making promising statements, but not really follow-up on those with tangible incentives that make a difference.

For example, some companies may say they offer quiet rooms where employees can take a moment, but frown on anyone that makes use of those spaces. Another example is preaching work-life balance but praising overworked employees.

Ultimately, wellbeing washing is a half-hearted attempt to address wellbeing issues that employees face. It’s false promises, toxic management practices and unhappy employees who expect more.

It’s quite obvious what wellbeing washing means and the damaging effects it can have on a business. Now that we’ve covered this part, let’s look at some of the signs of wellbeing washing in the workplace.

A ping-pong table in a vibrant office
Ping-pong tables do not support wellbeing in the workplace

Signs of wellbeing washing in your team

Let’s look at a number of the signs of wellbeing washing. By recognising these, you can quash issues before they get out of hand.

No tangible programme or wellbeing outline

Some companies will promise the world and simply underdeliver. They will have no real outline of wellbeing support, no policies, no programmes or an employee wellbeing platform — nothing.

But as you’ll know, the best way to action any effort is with a solid strategy. That way, everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet and knows what’s required to succeed. With workplace wellbeing, no formal plan means no decent support.

Neglecting the real issues at play

One sign of wellbeing washing is a company that ignores growing issues within its workforce. The kind of issues that can be detrimental to employee wellbeing. For instance, if employees have too much work, they may be staying later.

And despite this being a clear sign of overworking, some leaders may treat it as a sign of “hard work”. Management practices like this are associated with wellbeing washing because they neglect problems that are evident within the company.

Instead, leaders must be transparent with the issues their company is dealing with. Ignoring them allows them to grow worse. It may also come across to employees, who have noticed these problems, as though leaders simply don’t care.

Relying on superficial benefits instead

Finally, some leaders choose to shout about all the wrong perks. Although ping-pong is very fun, it doesn’t add any real value to the employee experience nor does it increase the health and wellbeing of staff.

If employers are more interested in the superficial benefits available, instead of meaningful and practical perks, there’s a very obvious issue of wellbeing washing. Benefits must support the immediate needs of employees.

If you’re a people operations professional remember, employees want to hear about the perks that support their health, wellbeing and happiness, not pizza Fridays or free office snacks.

An angry employee scratching his head
How does wellbeing washing impact your business?

How does wellbeing washing impact your business?

Now for the main course in this guide to wellbeing washing. Here, we’re going to discuss the various ways in which wellbeing washing impacts your business. Because if the above signs haven’t put you off, these definitely will.

It’s super important the wellbeing of your people is taken seriously. Failure to do will result in the following issues, and that only scratches the surface.

Poor brand reputation

One of the consequences of wellbeing washing is developing a poor brand reputation. As employees begin to see the cracks in your company’s wellbeing strategy, it will become apparent that leadership doesn’t genuinely care.

With platforms like Glassdoor, it doesn’t take long before disgruntled employees are expressing how they really feel about your company’s culture. And things like wellbeing washing will pop up in these reviews.

This not only impacts your brand reputation generally, but it can hinder your recruitment efforts, as your business builds a poor reputation for looking after employees. If you take anything from this guide, remember that wellbeing washing can hurt your employee acquisition and retention rates.

Lack of trust in senior management

Extending our last point, a poor brand reputation also turns into a lack of trust in senior management. You see, when more is said than done, we generally lose both interest and trust. We’re promised this, promised that and eventually, we give up.

We decide that it’s all deceit. Perhaps an employer doesn’t have any intention to provide wellness days, perhaps they’re just looking to keep us here as long as possible, guessing whether we’ll finally receive reimbursed gym memberships.

Promises keep employees going, they suggest that ‘things are on the up’ as a company, and that the workforce — and their hard work — is valued greatly. But without real action, employees lose faith in their line managers and the wider leadership team.

Remember: people don’t forget promises very easily. If you promise something, especially in the way of health and wellbeing initiatives, do not forget to act on them. You may find you’ve become a company that is wellbeing washing.

Unhappy employees ready to leave

Finally, unhappy employees appear to be everywhere these days. And that’s because the needs of people in the workplace are unmet. As a leader, you must constantly refresh your benefits package and review your wellbeing strategy.

If your company is wellbeing washing, the chances are, employees are going to remain (and possibly grow even more) unhappy. Always keep your benefits and wellbeing initiatives genuine and meaningful.  

For more signs of why employees are unhappier, we’ve put together a short blog post to identify more of the signs of unhappiness in the workplace.

A female employee stressed whilst at work
Our final thoughts on wellbeing washing

Conclusion on wellbeing washing

Conclusively, wellbeing washing is very concerning. In a time of uncertainty and a mental health crisis, employers should do all they can to create healthier, happier employees. This lack of care paints employers in a bad light.

Since the global pandemic, people have had to deal with lots of challenges. Perks around mental health and wellbeing have only grown in demand. Now, employers must take concrete action to support the health and wellbeing of their team.

Things like wellbeing policies and platforms can support a robust wellbeing plan. Leaders should also invest in one-on-one meetings to ensure they’re doing everything they can for employees.

To summarise, wellbeing washing is a major red flag and will only see existing employees leave, whilst candidates turn down opportunities. After all, it doesn’t just impact employee wellbeing, it deteriorates the overall success of a business

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