We take a look at how employers can implement wellbeing initiatives that actually support employees

As the topic of mental health becomes more widely recognised, many workplaces are practising initiatives to support their employee’s wellbeing… or so we might think.

On the surface, it would seem that workplaces are keen to promote their mental health resources, whether that’s employing mental health first aiders, offering employee assistance programmes, or implementing a strict ‘logging off’ policy. But the real question is, are employees truly seeing these benefits, or are they falling victim to ‘wellbeing washing’?

The term ‘wellbeing washing’ refers to organisations that publicly promote their “mental health” initiatives, but don’t actually support their employees internally. In a similar vein to greenwashing, companies may join in on awareness day campaigns or charitable events, showcasing their role in looking after employee wellbeing and good mental health, but the truth is that many of these organisations aren’t practising what they preach.

Examples of wellbeing washing could look like this:

  • Encouraging work-life balance, but praising employees that work overtime.
  • Participating in mental health awareness days or activities without supporting employee wellbeing day-to-day.
  • Buying goods for the office, like comfy bean bags, and creating a fun environment, but not having a wellness action plan in place.
  • Running a mental health workshop during a lunch break.

In a 2022 study by Claro Wellbeing, it was found that seven in 10 workplaces celebrated mental health awareness days, but only one in three actually offered support that was noted as “good” or “outstanding” by employees. Of course, it’s great to see that companies are encouraging awareness of mental health, but pretending to advocate for employees’ wellbeing can actually have detrimental effects:

  • Reduced credibility and reputation. All talk and no action can leave employees feeling like their employers are dishonest, leading to a lack of trust. What’s more, review platforms like Glassdoor, which allow employees to share their experiences at work, mean there’s no hiding it.
  • More burnt-out employees. Employees feeling overworked and under pressure with few resources to turn to for support are more likely to suffer from burnout. This could lead to more sick days and lower outputs of productivity for businesses.
  • Higher employee turnover. Naturally, employees that are disappointed in the lack of mental health and wellbeing support are more likely to be unhappy at work as their needs are not being met. Employees are likely to look for a new job elsewhere as a result.

Recognising wellbeing washing in the workplace

We know how concerning wellbeing washing is and the damage it can cause for both businesses and employees. But how exactly can workers recognise if this is what they’re experiencing? Here are some things to look out for:

  • A lack of a wellness support plan. No policies, no signposting to wellbeing support and no formal plan suggests the organisation is merely pretending that these initiatives exist.
  • Neglecting or overlooking the real problems. Overworked employees tend to show this by staying on later, starting early, or working through their breaks. For many, this is a clear sign that employees have too much on their plate but, for other employers, this might be praised as ‘hard work’.
  • Too many of the ‘wrong’ perks. Sure, having a TV and ‘chill out’ space in the office is great, but if this isn’t in alignment with tangible benefits that actually help employees, this could be a red flag.
  • Lack of communication of resources. If you simply don’t know where to find wellbeing information and support that your organisation claims to offer, this is likely to be another indicator of wellbeing washing.

How can employers implement tangible benefits for employees?

At Happiful, our mission is to create a happier, healthier and more sustainable society. It’s fair to say that we know a thing or two about looking after our employees’ wellbeing and happiness at work. Our very own Kat Nicholls, a member of our wellness team, explains, “Sometimes it's about the big things, other times it's about small tweaks, but at its heart, it's always about our people.”

Yes, some initiatives are probably going to come at a cost to the business, such as offering employee assistance (EAPs) or corporate wellness programmes. According to Mantra Care, the cost of these resources is rising for UK businesses to around £75 per employee, per year, but the benefits in return far outweigh this.

Having said that, even the smallest of changes can make a huge difference. Here are just a few of the ways employers can facilitate wellness schemes that actually help their employees:

  • Listen to what employees have to say. “When it comes to wellness at Happiful, one of the most important things we do is listen to employees,” says Kat. “Every month we ask for anonymous suggestions which the wellness team reviews and – here's the important bit – always responds to. We may not be able to say yes to every idea, but we will always consider and talk about it, explaining our reasoning if we have to say no.”
  • Regularly survey employee satisfaction. “We have regular surveys and base any initiatives or activities we do off of these,” Kat comments. “Some examples of things we've actioned based on staff suggestions include more flexible working hours/lunch breaks, training on diversity and inclusion, and healthier snacks at the office.”
  • Make lunch breaks mandatory. Ensuring employees are actually taking their breaks (in full) regardless of their workload is an important step in valuing their time and ensuring they’re refuelled so that they can work to the best of their ability.
  • Reinforce the importance of time off. Time off is vital to prevent employee burnout, but is also incredibly important for those that may have already reached that point. Be sure to emphasise that there is no shame in asking for time off to look after your mental health. As a manager, if you notice that someone hasn’t got any time off booked, why not discuss their workload with them and encourage them to book some annual leave?
  • Start an employee recognition programme. At Happiful, our bi-weekly recognition email gives our team the opportunity to praise employees for their achievements, whatever they might be! It can be easy to focus on only providing negative feedback or ‘constructive criticism’, but focusing on a job well done goes such a long way to motivating employees.
  • Invest in personal development. Regularly providing staff with training opportunities, team building exercises or arranging webinars from outside experts on particular topics can help facilitate wellbeing. At Happiful, examples of webinars that we’ve recently attended are on menopause awareness at work and diversity and inclusion training.

The list of workplace mental health and wellbeing initiatives is endless. It’s all about finding out what your employees want and implementing that to the best of your ability. In a world that is full of uncertainty, there is never a more important time to put your employees’ wellbeing first, and the benefits will speak for themselves.