- In a recent survey, 51% of participants blamed their boss for not taking the right steps to support their mental well-being.
- Well-being washing happens when employee perks are offered in exchange for huge workloads and long hours that lead to burnout.
- Genuine efforts to support employees include fostering real work-life balance and leading by example, having open conversations about mental and physical health, and adopting self-care programs.
Well-being washing has become the latest workplace buzzword after a snap poll launched by the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) revealed that 51% of participants blamed their boss for not supporting their mental well-being.
The message is clear: companies must go beyond token gestures, or else face employee walkouts and tarnished company reputations. Microsoft’s 2022 Work Trends Index shows that 53% of workers are more likely to prioritize their mental health over work. But, what is well-being washing exactly?
Well-being washing: the new workplace buzzword
The idea of well-being washing is simply that employers are saying they support wellness, but aren’t taking real action towards that, while also holding higher expectations for employees. A way of supporting employees without taking truly impactful steps to create change, IOSH identifies examples of well-being washing when companies offer employee perks (like gym memberships, yoga classes, and healthy free food), “while pushing staff towards unsustainable workloads, long hours and burnout.”
IOSH found that some companies are tone-deaf when it comes to supporting their people. Examples of out-of-touch well-being washing actions include encouraging employees to take well-being walks but giving them no time for it, facilitating support services that refuse to talk about work-related issues, and providing holiday discounts amid a cost of living crisis.
The workplace-related mental health crisis is not new, yet it’s still as prevalent as ever, found the Workplace Health Report released by Champion Health. 76% of employees are currently experiencing moderate-to-high levels of stress, which is an increase from 67% the year before, with huge workloads triggering 73% of work-related anxiety.
Whilst some stress can be conducive to productivity at work, prolonged periods may lead to more serious mental health conditions.
Here are five ways companies can avoid well-being washing in the workplace:
1. Foster work-life balance
When IOSH asked survey participants which changes they’d welcome from their boss, flexible working was high on the agenda. This is already a reality for some, like in the U.K., where the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill has just passed, granting everyone the right to flexible working.
When individuals are given autonomy over when and when they work, it establishes trust within an organization, leading to “happier employees and more productive business,” says U.K. Minister for Small Business Kevin Hollinrake.
“Flexible working can also help to reduce stress for those people who struggle to juggle work with external commitments,” including parents and carers of children and vulnerable people, explains a report from MotherPukka, a lobbyist for the bill.
It not only reduces the pressure of additional workloads. Having the opportunity to work from home or work locally helps employees save money on commuting costs and alleviates a certain amount of worry around finances, too.
2. Adopt a self-care program
Self-care isn’t acts of indulgence like taking bubble baths and buying luxury items. It requires a series of well-meaning actions and sustainable habits that rejuvenate the mind, body, and soul.
“In its simplest form, self-care is just the little things we do to look after our own mental health…so we can care for ourselves,” explains mental health charity YoungMinds.
Companies can help employees help themselves by offering a range of healthy and empowering activities, bearing in mind that self-care isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Whilst one employee could be thrilled to join in regular yoga classes in the office, this idea might be another employee’s worst nightmare. They may prefer a discount to their local gym so they can exercise away from the workplace and outside working hours.
IOSH found that survey respondents were keen to access a variety of lifestyle classes. To take action, leaders can ask their staff what would benefit them, and implement a variety of self-care options chosen by employees.
3. Open up conversations around mental health
Conversations around mental health are more open-minded. But some people are still concerned that talking about their mental well-being might impact their career or level of professionalism. Surveys conducted by McKinsey found that 37% of people with a mental illness avoid treatment because they worry about their work colleagues finding out. It reveals that the stigma attached to talking about mental health is “associated with lower workforce productivity.”
The report advises leaders to shift their approach from stigma to support. As this is a sensitive topic, leaders must approach it with compassion and care, and consider accessing resources from mental health charities and professionals depending on the needs of individuals seeking support.
4. Allow compassionate leave for fertility-related physical health conditions
Another way to show sincere concern for employee well-being is to also be open to supporting employees with physical health conditions that were traditionally seen as taboo, such as fertility needs. The IOSH survey called for more support around menopausal issues as another an example.
In Spain, a historic movement of sexual and reproductive rights was recently announced with the passing of a new bill granting employees the right to three days of menstrual leave. Being the first European country to take action on this, Spain will likely influence more countries on the continent follow suit. Even without this legislation, companies can empower employees to decide for themselves when it’s time for a break, and accept it when employees need a few days of compassionate leave for their mental and physical health, no further questions asked.
5. Leading by example
Establishing a supportive workplace starts at the top. In order for employees to feel safe to speak about their mental and physical health, take time out when they need to, and work flexibly, corporate leaders must model these organizational values, too.
The Workplace Health Report suggests that “a supportive organizational and team culture reduces employee stress,” advising managers to set KPIs that encourage team collaboration, not competition. Creating clear communication methods helps employees to raise concerns around well-being support processes, benefiting everyone along the way.
Providing well-being support isn’t a box-ticking exercise. It’s something that every individual is entitled to. To create true organizational change — and on an even greater level, societal transformation — companies must apply equitable and inclusive values to the organization, nurture their workforce and give every individual the right conditions they need to thrive in their career as well as in their personal life.