Lunchtime yoga, gym memberships and free fruit in the office are all signs of a robust workplace wellness strategy…right?

Well, maybe not. In reality, providing these “quick-fix” offerings while simultaneously subjecting employees to insurmountable workloads, long hours and burnout may indicate that an employer is wellbeing washing.

Wellbeing washing is the practice of organizations publicly supporting mental health initiatives but not actually supporting their workforce internally. These kinds of organizations essentially offer surface-level wellbeing tactics without addressing real employee health issues in the workplace.

A 2022 Claro Wellbeing study found that a third of businesses are guilty of wellbeing washing. The study went on to reveal that although 70% of employers actively commemorate mental health awareness days, only 36% of these employers have truly followed through on their communication efforts by providing valuable and meaningful wellbeing support to their employees.

Another survey published in February by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health even found that 51% of employees believed wellbeing washing was a huge problem in their workplace. Here are a few examples of what it might look like:

  • Offering wellbeing walks but giving employees no time to take them due to unsustainably heavy workloads.
  • Inviting a speaker to talk about burnout, but not having (or strategizing to have) any practical strategies in the workplace to address it.
  • Writing social media posts about mental health awareness without implementing a long-term commitment to improving mental health internally.

These superficial approaches to wellbeing can have harmful consequences on your people and workplace that include increased employee burnout, disengaged employees, high turnover, low productivity and diminished trust, credibility and reputation.

How Can HR Walk the Talk of Wellbeing?

  1. Start with the fundamentals: To ensure your company is not engaging in wellbeing washing, it’s important that HR professionals, working alongside employers, implement initiatives and practices that actually make a difference in employees’ lives. This includes offering a decent salary, workplace flexibility, good parental leave, mental health supports, etc.
  2. Use surveys and employee feedback: HR can also conduct a needs assessment to understand your employees’ true wellbeing concerns. Armed with this information, you can begin implementing initiatives that help employees thrive. Beyond that, you can regularly use metrics and employee feedback to gauge the impact of employee wellbeing initiatives and pivot accordingly.
  3. Become DEI proficient: Based on a recent article published by Forbes, employees who are not part of an inclusive work environment are at a higher risk of encountering unconscious bias, microaggressions, and other factors that can have a detrimental effect on their mental well-being. Additionally, employees who do not feel included at work may be less likely to ask for help or for mental health accommodations. 

    Learning how to foster an inclusive work environment is key. Which is why we’re encouraging our HRPA members to advance their understanding of DEI and how it impacts the workplace through the Feminuity x HRPA Level-Up program. Take 10% off using the code HRPAxFeminuity.
  4. Make wellbeing part of the conversation: Make sure leaders and staff are incorporating more opportunities for conversations into their daily routines, both remotely and in-person, to prevent employees from becoming complacent and falling into disconnected patterns.
  5. Develop a long-term wellness strategy: HR should be sure that their current HR strategy evolves based on employees’ needs. Also, work with team leaders across the organization to examine both sides of the employer-employee relationship when it comes to wellbeing. This long-term strategy should take a holistic approach, considering an employees’ physical, emotional, social, financial, workplace and mental wellness. To specifically learn more about creating a psychologically safe workplace, access the HRPA Practice Guideline on mental health at work.
  6. Review external communications messaging: HR can make sure that their marketing and communications team’s messaging around wellbeing on social media is not only genuine but also accurate. By acting as filter for any public announcements regarding company-wide wellbeing initiatives, you can help ensure that there’s credibility among employees and other stakeholders.

Bottom line: Remember, there’s a difference between being at the beginning of your wellbeing journey and wellbeing washing. There may be a lot of trial and error at first – and you may not get it right initially, but there should be a consistent effort to build a healthy work culture. Wellbeing washing, on the other hand, is all the fluff without walking the talk of supporting employees in the workplace throughout the year.