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How to avoid ‘wellbeing wash’

Consultancy 9th January 2023

Employee wellbeing continues to be named as the number one priority for 2023 — the means of dealing with rising levels of stress and burnout, new worries about finances, and help with employee recruitment and retention. That’s the idea at least.

How much of the investment into health initiatives is just wellbeing wash? There is no shortage of evidence of organisational schemes and campaigns, or a willingness to shout about commitment to employee wellbeing. But what changes have resulted? We haven’t yet entered any kind of new age. Workplaces haven’t become the bedrock of healthy lifestyles. If anything, worries about employee wellbeing keep on ratcheting up: the potential for burnout is more of a problem than ever, flexible and hybrid working keeps on throwing up new headaches, the Great Resignation goes on as people look for more work/life balance.

One snapshot of the problem has come from research by Claro Wellbeing which claims more than a third of employers are only talking the talk on mental wellbeing. 70% of employers have been celebrating mental health awareness days with events, promotional content and social media activity — but, according to their staff, only 36% of these have backed up the trumpeting of comms with real, worthwhile support on mental health. Tellingly, in another survey (this time by MHR), 62% of employees surveyed didn’t believe their employer cared about their mental wellbeing; 55% thought they were under pressure to ‘hide’ mental health concerns.

So there can still be some stigma — but that’s not really the root problem here, that’s not really why employees feel uncomfortable. Being open about a mental health issue has, in itself, become something normal, leading to a norm of sympathy and understanding in principle. But, as Employee Assistance Programme providers themselves are starting to point out, the need is not about steering people towards support but what happens next, the practical realities at work. Employers are keen to shout about their mental wellbeing policies — but it doesn’t mean they are willing to discuss how working practices, management styles, performance targets, or just overall workplace culture, might be directly responsible. Employee wellbeing is just something that needs to be looked after separately, in spite of everyday woes.

For a healthy workplace, there has to be the opportunity for honest and realistic conversations about work and how work affects employees, meaning a chance to make working lives better. And that shouldn’t have to lead to grievances and conflict — the kinds of situations that tend to be heightened by a feeling among staff that wellbeing activities are just an empty form of internal PR.

Feelings of trust and psychological safety are the real source of wellbeing for anyone, whatever challenges and insecurities they have to deal with. So employees need to feel able to speak up and have difficult conversations when they need to, as a means of moving forward and dealing with what might be a simple misunderstanding, a minor cause for unease, that can either be easily cleared up — or allowed to fester over years into de-motivation, disconnection and ill-health. Honesty and maturity is needed among both line managers and their reports to have those conversations without there being a constant fear of implications on both sides: a practical language for dealing with truth rather than the clichés and buzzwords around drive and excitement and commitment that have become an insidious feature of 21st century organisations.

For HR that means having good skills and processes. Soft skills like listening, empathy, self-awareness and curiosity (and how to use them to deal with more difficult conversations) are increasingly critical in our hybrid, dislocated workplaces. As a backbone of support: access to mediation and neutral assessment as the norm rather than as a response to a potential crisis or collapse in relationships.

Only when a routine of good conversations and practices around disputes are the distinguishing feature of a workplace can there be a genuine sense of safety. In practice this involves:

  • creating opportunities for more conversations as part of routines, digitally and face-to-face, and not allowing staff to become complacent and fall into disconnected routines — it’s happening more and more now the novelty of remote working has gone;
  • making managers have higher levels of conversation skills: listening skills, self-awareness, empathy are needed to a greater degree when dealing with people remotely;
  • ensuring there are informal systems to catch grievances early and deal with conflict, via methods like mediation and neutral assessment. There are now far more reasons and chances for concerns and minor conflicts to go under the radar, to fester and escalate;
  • and, ultimately, in order to secure the basis of trust, review standards and approaches to workplace investigations.