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Wellbeing washing

We take a closer look at wellbeing washing, what it is, and ways you can avoid it in your workplace.
- 27th October 2023

Wellbeing washing: what is it, and how can your organisation avoid it?

As you skim past article headlines or posts on LinkedIn, you may have seen the phrase ‘wellbeing washing’ and wondered what on earth it means. We might assume the term is promoting the benefits of personal hygiene for mental health, but that’s not the case.

‘Wellbeing washing’ borrows from the term greenwashing, used to describe companies who portray their practices as being kind to the environment, when closer scrutiny reveals that they are anything but.

In the case of wellbeing washing, examples can include leaving fruit bowls in the staff kitchen or offering lunchtime yoga, while doing little to tackle staff stress and burnout from excessive workloads, or demotivation from a lack of work that stretches them.

But employers can also be accused of wellbeing washing when their wellbeing strategies haven’t led to meaningful action, or changed employees’ working lives for the better.

What does AI say?

ChatGPT defined wellbeing washing as a ‘deceptive’ attempt to give the impression that an employer champions wellbeing. However, at time of writing, AI has yet to develop the algorithmic awareness needed to diagnose deliberate deceitfulness.

It can’t tell when it, or other people are lying. So, it’s safe to assume that ChatGPT is only regurgitating human opinions about the motives behind employer’s attempts to support colleague’s mental health and wellbeing.

It's not that employers don’t care…

Is there a more charitable view? It’s true that our ability to empathise can be compromised when we become stressed, or when our own Emotional Needs are unmet.

With The Mental Health Toolkit, Suffolk Mind began working with CEOs, managing directors and HR professionals to address workplace wellbeing more than 10 years ago, and in that time, it’s been rare for us to meet people in senior roles whose concern and expressions of empathy felt insincere. 

Arguably, employers who care only about profit margins would be unlikely to engage with The Mental Health Toolkit. Our impression is that 99 percent of people care about the mental health of their colleagues and genuinely want them to receive the help they need. So, what else could explain ‘wellbeing washing’?

Burning fires

One explanation is that people are too busy putting out fires to give attention to making effective changes to workplace wellbeing. Perhaps their workforce is still reeling from the effects of lockdown. Or, there may be lots of staff off sick with stress or recovering from personal tragedies.

If an employer is navigating a major change to their business, such as a merger, recruitment challenges, or unavoidable redundancies, they may not have the headspace to really explore the options and develop a clear strategy. And this is where we see another explanation for ‘wellbeing washing’.

Too much choice

The workplace wellbeing market has expanded so rapidly that the choice faced by potential customers is overwhelming. If we’re under pressure to decide on a solution, it’s natural to reach for the first training package with a strong brand and reputation.

Yet, while some training can raise people’s confidence when talking about mental health, this is unlikely to bring about meaningful change. Studies of some of the market leaders in mental health training show that it may make little or no difference to employees who seek support when experiencing mental ill-health from trained colleagues.   

In fact, at The Mental Health Toolkit, we’ve been approached by employers who’ve tried other well-known brands to address workplace wellbeing, but found it did little more than lift people’s spirits for a day or two following the training. They then come to us because they recognise a need for an approach which changes the workplace culture overall.

And once they’ve attended a taster session, they can see that the key to change is an understanding of Emotional Needs, and how we can use our Resources to help meet them.

The workplace tribe 

Management consultant, Peter Drucker, is alleged to have said: ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast.’ But why is this? One reason is that a culture is a shared agreement – often unsaid – about how the members of that culture behave to meet their needs. As social creatures, humans learn to behave in accordance with the rules of the tribe to ensure that their emotional needs for community, attention and respect can be met.

If employees see that exchanging emails after working hours is the norm, they will assume that this is what is expected and do the same. If meetings are scheduled back-to-back and over lunch breaks, people will feel compelled to skip lunch to ensure that they are seen to be obeying the ‘rules’ of the workplace tribe.

The risk is stress, burnout and mental ill-health. And, if the culture is particularly unhealthy, people seek to meet their needs at the expense of others, which can lead to bullying and toxic behaviour.  

Mutual needs satisfaction

So, how can we use this understanding to improve workplace wellbeing? The key is to reach a shared agreement about how people behave to meet their emotional needs. This includes everyone from the shop floor to the boardroom. As Duke University Psychology Professor Michael Tomasello explains, for everyone’s role in the tribe to be appreciated, the ‘we’ must supersede the ‘me.’

To reach this agreement, employees need to understand emotional needs – their own and other people’s.

This is where attending training by The Mental Health Toolkit comes in.

By developing a deep understanding of the relationship between meeting emotional needs, reducing stress, and protecting mental health, a healthy workplace culture begins to take root. People then begin to act with consideration for other people’s emotional needs. This goes beyond a strategy plastered on the office wall or repeated on everyone’s lanyard every day of the week.

No employer wants to be accused of ‘wellbeing washing,’ but there’s a bigger goal besides avoiding unwanted labels. If we’re aiming to create mentally health workplaces, where people thrive and enjoy coming to work, then satisfying the mutual needs of the employer and the employee must become our shared aim.

Explore the Toolkit to find out how our workshops and courses can help your organisation go beyond wellbeing washing and make a real difference.

Written by Ezra Hewing, our Head of Education

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