By Petra Velzeboer psychotherapist and CEO of mental health consultancy PVL

So I know there seems to be a new term everyday for things going on in the world - a new buzzword that can help us make sense of a fast-paced uncertain and often overwhelming world - but every once in a while a term just hits the nail on the head and gives language to help us understand the new world of work. Well-being washing is one of those terms. 

A phrase to highlight the growing number of companies who are talking a good game when it comes to wellbeing or having a people-centric approach but the reality doesn't quite add up. I call it the PR version of wellbeing which Claro Wellbeing suggests that over a third of companies are guilty of - focussing more on appearing to invest in this topic while not truly caring about their people in reality.  Social media posts on awareness days, benefits and buzzy resources that sound shiny and good but reality highlights that engagement is limited, psychological safety is poor and retention challenges at an all time high. 

So firstly how do you know if your company is well-being washing and crucially, is there anything you can do about it?

Signs to look out for include...

  • Mental Health awareness days suddenly are awash with messages like look after yourself, events that may include cuddling puppies, free pizza or speakers telling their stories of poor mental health (making sure to never mention the environment they were in that may have been a contributing factor to poor mental health or burnout).  Don't get me wrong, these are all great things to do when backed up by a well-being culture the rest of the year but a warning sign when it's the only thing that happens all year! 
  • Benefits, resources, apps and helplines are great of course - but if engagement is at an all time low (think 4-6% usage) well, somethings not right here. Either the resources are not fit for the demographic or industry or they are papering over the cracks of lack of safety, trust or space that would enable these resources to be useful. 
  • Your people are experiencing survey fatigue and have no idea what is being done with their ideas.  You may be doing pulse surveys, engagement surveys, diversity and inclusion surveys and on and on the list might go - nothing wrong with a well-placed survey UNLESS you never actually get feedback on what is being done with your insights (even if tiny steps are being taken) and so you lose interest and trust and engagement dips as employees feel there's no point in taking the time to complete these. 

I could go on - are your wellbeing networks or champions feeling burnt-out and low in morale, are HR teams leaving for similar reasons or do you have restructures that erode trust due to lack of communication or transparency from leaders? Well if any or all of these apply to you, here's a few things to consider to help be the change you want to see in your company. 

Sometimes ignorance is bliss and many people simply don't know how investing in individual and collective wellbeing can improve performance and positively impact the bottom-line of your business - so getting some education right at the top is crucial and being a solution focussed voice of reason can be the first step to steering the ship in a different direction. 

I say solution focussed because we can all get stuck in the cycle of complaining, mistrust and presenteeism when really taking some brave action can help us test the situation to see if change is possible or if over time, well-being washing could negatively affect your mental health and a change to the two-thirds of companies who are trying to get this right may be a great option. 

As a leader or business owner, begin by investing in yourself and leading by example in talking about it. Embedding these conversations into your normal working day enables your team to understand how well-being is intrinsic to day to day life, not just something that is external for clients to see. 

Secondly, build a culture of psychological safety. Check out Amy Edmondson's work on The Fearless Organization to get you started.  

Next I would challenge you to really listen to your people. This could mean ensuring your survey questions are still fit for purpose and then communicating the results and what you intend to do about them (even if only 1 small step is realistic now) but it could also include ‘walking the shop floor' as it were - picking up the phone, asking questions about culture in team meetings and discussing things like how you work not just what you do. 

This brings me to my next point which is about working practices. When well-being washing is rife there's often a disconnect between what's on offer to highlight the topic and what is actually expected or assumed in the working day. In my work with organisations internationally many people express feeling burnt-out and that workload is one of the key barriers to investing in their wellbeing (which of course ends up costing the organisation down the line) however people are running on assumptions about what's expected of them rather than discussing the question openly. Being clear about how you work as a leader and what is expected from your people will minimise the impact of people seeing you work in a certain way and assuming this is how they must work too. 

Finally, getting wellbeing right doesn't mean being perfect or having every interaction free from blame. Instead it means working together to experiment with wellbeing tools, openly discussing culture and showing vulnerability as leaders as we collaborate on how we do culture right in a hybrid world where none of us truly knows what the new world of work entails. 

Psychotherapist Petra Velzeboer  is also the author of new book Begin With You, published 3 May 2023