Wellbeing washing – is your company guilty?

Aiva Strelca 12.05.2023

Ever heard of the term ‘wellbeing washing’? With companies paying employee mental health its long-deserved attention, wellbeing washing has become a hot topic among workplace culture experts and HR professionals. It may seem that every company is offering vast employee wellness benefits. Unfortunately, in many cases, the benefits serve companies’ public image rather than their workers.

How to spot wellbeing washing? Are you working in a place that’s guilty of this practice? And how to avoid being a company that engages in the wellbeing washing practice? Keep reading for answers.

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What exactly is wellbeing washing, and how to recognize it?

Wellbeing washing refers to a situation in which a company publicly preaches how it supports employee health and wellbeing while, in reality, employees don’t receive adequate support. 

According to data, more than one-third of companies worldwide are at fault for this practice. Their employee wellness narratives look amazing on social media and other public displays but don’t materialize in real help. 

To better grasp the idea of wellbeing washing, here are a few examples of what it can look like in practice:

  • Publicly celebrating mental health week while not supporting employee mental health 
  • Publishing social media posts, blog posts, making appearances on podcasts to discuss mental health awareness at a company without any actual mental health support mechanisms in place
  • Participating in public events that raise mental health awareness without company-wide actions in place
  • Offering some wellbeing perks – e.g., free gym membership, a monthly mental health day, meditation room in the office – while not addressing inadequate workloads
  • Not providing information about wellbeing assistance or support available to employees despite publicly stating that a company offers such options

The good thing about wellbeing washing (even though there’s nothing good about it) is that it’s pretty easy to spot. Words that don’t align with actions – here’s your red flag number one. 

The trickier part is addressing it.

Why does wellbeing washing occur?

Before we dive into avoiding the practice of wellbeing washing, I’d like to bring up that being a wellbeing washer isn’t always deliberate. Data by Deloitte shows that employers are likely to rate the wellbeing of their workers better than it is and not realize the scale of their struggles. 

It’s common for C-suite and management to be away – both physically and organizationally – from their companies’ employees. Hence, lack of information is why wellbeing washing can happen, even when the intentions are good.

Additionally, employers lacking emotional intelligence and understanding of what employee wellbeing means can be at fault for wellbeing washing. In such cases, it’s a lot about the personal qualities of employers and the management team. 

Ways to avoid wellbeing washing

While wellbeing washing is exactly as tricky as it sounds, the good news is that it can be dealt with. Here’s what you can do depending on whether you’re an employer or an employee.

If you’re an employee

Be open and honest with your supervisor, HR representative, or management team, and address your concerns. Explain that you would like to have more support for employee wellbeing from the company. As always, it’s a good idea not to be aggressive and to have arguments ready that support your observations. 

Additionally, you can address the issue from a personal point of view. Share your struggles, and why support from the company is needed. If it’s a case of an unrealistic workload that impacts your work performance and wellbeing, make sure to share that, too. Honesty is key. 

Another thing to consider when tackling wellbeing washing in your workplace is to bring some employee wellbeing support ideas to the table. Actionable points will enable your employer to understand the issue better and see how they could begin to offer the necessary support. 

Important note: If you’ve voiced your concerns about wellbeing washing and you feel ignored or don’t see any changes happening, changing jobs could be in your best interest. Don’t sacrifice your mental health.

If you’re an employer

Whether wellbeing washing at your company has been intentional or not, the best thing to do is – well, do something. 

And again, honesty is the best policy. Employees will appreciate an open conversation in which you acknowledge that you haven’t provided enough support for them and that you’re willing to change that. 

Gather data and insights on employee wellbeing at your company. Whether it’s a survey or interviews conducted by your HR department, it’s crucial that you know the actual situation of employee wellbeing at your organization. You can only make changes if you know the extent of the issue. 

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Similar to gathering information on the current state of your employees’ wellbeing, ask your workers about the support they’d like to receive. Free yoga classes sound fantastic. But your employees might want and benefit a lot more from other types of support. It’s a great idea to enable anonymous thought-sharing to encourage your employees to speak more freely.

Create and implement employee wellbeing policies and guidelines. It’s essential to establish a company-wide policy on how you’ll address employee wellbeing from now on to avoid slipping right back into wellbeing washing. Shifting the narrative within a company’s culture is time-consuming and complex, especially regarding employee wellness and its perception. But to be successful, the shift needs to be done not only by implementing support mechanisms but also by establishing clear guidelines and tracking whether those mechanisms work as intended

Walk the walk. Always

Dealing with company culture issues is never an easy task – neither for managers nor workers. But whatever the matter is, the best thing to do is to do something. Wellbeing washing is a complex situation but not an impossible one. And through honest communication, employee insight gathering, and actionable steps, it’s possible to make changes in company culture for the better. 

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