The dangers of ‘wellbeing washing’ and how to avoid it 


Anna Eliatamby explores workplace wellbeing, exposing pitfalls and offering effective strategies

Years ago, business recognised the importance of supporting and enhancing the wellbeing and mental health of employees and leaders. Wellbeing and employee assistance programmes came into existence. All this came to a crescendo during the Covid-19 pandemic.  

It is worth assessing the extent to which current efforts enhance wellbeing, and then make necessary changes  

A central pivot for these programmes was, and remains, learning and development (L&D). These interventions can boost stress and mental health management, as well as engagement and retention.  

Some organisations have maintained their sincere interest in the mental health and wellbeing of staff; others ignore it. And then there are those who pay lip service to the need to be caring and offer meaningful interventions. This is ‘wellbeing washing’, and it has many dangers. But it is possible to avoid this superficial approach and do something meaningful.  

What does wellbeing washing look like?  

Unfortunately, some have used their creativity to develop interventions that are, at best, meaningless, or, at worst, detrimental to staff mental health and wellbeing. Most under-resource the programmes and may give the responsibility for organisational wellbeing to a junior person.  

Efforts with minimal negative impact include offering free fruit, having a mental health awareness day without any follow up, and having broadcasts or posters encouraging self-care even though there is a significant amount of toxicity. Leadership could announce a set of learning programmes but not give L&D sufficient resources to implement them. Or there could be little marketing of the programmes, with staff not being given time to attend.  

Negative interventions  

A perverse form of wellbeing washing is when the offer is used to control staff. Implementing a counselling programme where staff are informed managers will receive information on what they have said. Alternatively, offering a two-hour training in stress management to all staff. Then, expect them to return to work in a very stressful environment with no other changes being made.  

Less obvious is selecting a suite of interventions because your counterpart in another organisation has said that this is the general tendency and needs to be adopted for the organisation’s reputation.  

You purchase the expensive programme (which only lasts for three months), encourage people to take part, but then don’t offer further support. Part of the problem with such interventions is that sellers now present them as effective products, enticing buyers to purchase them, despite slim evidence.  

The dangers of wellbeing washing 

Wellbeing is not a regulated field and so many claim to be experts. For example, many offer mental health first aid (MHFA) training, but there is limited evidence to support its usefulness beyond raising awareness of mental health. Staff trained in MHFA may risk considering themselves to be fully qualified counsellors. This can be problematic if they try to help a colleague with mental health issues rather than referring them on.  

Impact on retention, performance and respect 

The organisation’s reputation could affect staff retention and discourage people from joining. Existing staff could disconnect and become cynical. Engagement levels could decrease. And there is likely to be a significant loss of trust and credibility.  

Performance and efficiency are also likely to be low. Similarly, there will be an impact on organisational culture, and respect for leadership could decline. People are unlikely to be effective at work; relationships and cultures suffer. And there will be ethical and legal concerns and quandaries.  

Wellbeing washing could damage the mental health and wellbeing of employees, posing the most serious danger. They could have increased stress levels, become more vulnerable in terms of their mental health, feel unsupported and isolated. For those who have a history of mental health problems, wellbeing washing may lead to a resurgence of problems and relapse.  

Avoiding wellbeing washing 

Globally, stress levels are high for all populations, including those who work. Mental wellbeing is low. We still have not returned to pre-pandemic levels for either measure. There are global economic uncertainties. Cost of living, workload, and post-Covid life are the top three factors that have a negative impact on wellbeing.  

Regardless, some are cutting back on wellbeing. Staff and leaders need the opposite to help them cope with the pressures of work.  

Leadership support 

The most crucial aspect is to secure and maintain support from the leadership. Without this, any intervention may not be successful. Sufficient resources must accompany this commitment for the long term. With these, any person who oversees wellbeing can develop a suite of interventions and programmes that enhance the mental health capabilities of staff. 

What is needed 

It is important to select interventions and programmes that are needed, not what some think is required. From the outset, ask staff what they want – don’t just implant.  

Common interventions focus on enhancing coping skills. Training for managers on mental health awareness is another one. However, these interventions have limited impact and risk ‘trying to fix the person’.  

Moving beyond stress management 

We recommend a holistic approach. Starting with the individual employee and moving beyond stress management and self-care. For those working in non-toxic environments, they will need opportunities to review and build their coping strategies. And an opportunity to look – safely – at the extent to which their habits and behaviours are helpful or unhelpful.  

Having chances to build self-esteem and self-respect contributes greatly to wellbeing. Provide a safe arena when they can learn more about psychological maturity – another vital asset.  

If the culture is toxic, you will need to use a different approach. If steps are not taken to address the negativity, then interventions need to be designed and delivered sensitively. Examples could be programmes on how to build collective accountability – praising the positive and addressing the negative with compassion.  

Usually, these sessions are offered using L&D interventions, and they can serve as an important vehicle.  

Don’t ignore the emotional and cognitive aspects

As well as the above topics, it’s important to understand that the change you are asking of people is at a deeper level than behavioural. Wellbeing interventions should also focus on the emotional and cognitive aspects, and the behavioural.  

Of course, imparting knowledge is a key component of any L&D programme. Create space and time for people to understand how to adjust cognitively, emotionally and behaviourally, while also acquiring new knowledge.  

Wellbeing topics usually require knowledge of psychological issues, such as stress management or coping with anxiety. It is best if this material is produced in conjunction with a mental health professional and in a way that is understandable and useful, rather than just discussing findings from psychological research which may not be helpful. For instance, presenting the neuroscience of stress and not the day-to-day implications of the findings.  

Integrating wellbeing into work 

Staff should incorporate what they have learnt into their work plans and annual appraisals. Teams can take similar approaches but, at a group level, they should embed what is learnt into their work plans and annual appraisals.  

For managers, they need to enhance their knowledge of wellbeing and mental health. There should be a focus on recognising when someone may need help, knowing who to go to for professional advice. And to help the person whose mental health is such that they need to have time away and then return to work.  

Managers, in collaboration with specialist mental health services and HR, should learn about and use return to work plans (including actions for relapses) so that they can facilitate a dignified re-entry for the staff member.  

Adopting a whole-systems approach 

For effective wellbeing, organisations must adopt a holistic approach. This means reviewing work practice, policies and procedures, culture and structure.  

L&D could work with mental health experts to build a framework using existing guidelines (WHO Mental Health at Work and ISO 45003) and help leaders and managers develop their organisational development and change management knowledge in this arena.  

Wellbeing is always impacted by the presence or absence of toxicity and of inclusion. And leaders and managers need to become skilled in recognising this inter-relationship and become knowledgeable on how to address it at the organisational (and individual) level.  

Aligning L&D with wellbeing goals 

Many generic L&D interventions and programmes, such as those for leaders, also influence wellbeing, as noted earlier. It is worth assessing the extent to which current efforts enhance wellbeing, and then make necessary changes. Ensure that the need to advance wellbeing is part of the design and implementation of all L&D interventions.  

This is a massive agenda of actions but underpinning them all is an intention to offer something that will enhance wellbeing in organisations. This is an honourable and necessary intention. Why not start with that, think about if there is well-washing in your organisation and then address it? Even if you must start small.  

Anna Eliatamby is director of Healthy Leadership CIC, and co-author with Grazia Lomonte of Healing-Self Care for Leaders and their Teams 

Anna Eliatamby

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