Employee wellbeing remains an important strategic objective for most employers. Companies with a positive employee culture cultivate higher levels of performance and staff retention and lower rates of presenteeism and sickness absence. However according to research by Claro Wellbeing (which was published in People Management) not all employers are practicing what they preach.

Claro Wellbeing recently found that 35% of organisations have been accused of “wellbeing washing” - a term coined to describe employers who make external displays of support for mental health initiatives (usually on social media) whilst their internal wellbeing programmes are somewhat piecemeal or lacking.

Statistics by Claro showed that 70% of workplaces celebrated mental health awareness days, but only 30% had mental health support that was deemed good or outstanding by their employees.

So, how can employers avoid wellbeing washing?

When considering how to address mental health at work, employers should look inwards at what they want their organisations to be known for and be guided by their workforce. An organisation’s social media presence is important but its culture is judged more meaningfully through its employees' eyes. Employers who don't consider this internal perspective may find themselves hung out to dry!

Here are three ways in which employers can deliver a successful wellbeing programme:

1. Data collection. You can’t manage what you can’t measure. Before you start an employee wellbeing initiative, consider the needs of your workforce. Find out how employees really feel (be it through staff surveys, or conversations with your managers or your mental health first aiders – or from all three). Many businesses attempt to tackle employee wellbeing without really understanding how their employees feel about particular workplace issues. Reaching out to employees and getting their views is invaluable for implementing the most beneficial support mechanisms.

2. Internal communications. Communicating your strategy and aspirations regularly will help to encourage an open dialogue about mental health. Employees appreciate consistent, honest, and open conversations about how employers view and manage wellbeing, and about what options are available for those struggling with their mental health. When holding 1-2-1s with colleagues include a welfare check in. In team meetings, consider making “wellbeing” a standing agenda item. The more your internal communications refer to wellbeing as a matter of course, the more employees will see their experience of the workplace as a strategic priority.

It is equally important to clearly signpost what company benefits and wellbeing support systems are available to employees outside of their chain of line management. Mental health support should be easily accessible to employees working remotely as well as to those working in the office.

3. Train your managers. A visible commitment from the top down can change attitudes and help to address the stigma that exists around mental health. Not all managers feel confident to talk about mental health or know how to spot the signs and symptoms of mental ill health in the workforce. Train your managers on how to hold wellbeing conversations and offer guidance on how regularly these conversations should be. Mental health affects us all and it should be factored into the way employees are managed. With poor line management being a very common reason for employee departures, a line manager who knows how and when to check in with an employee about mental health will play a very significant role in the overall employee experience.

For many organisations, employee wellbeing sits at the heart of a company’s culture and with wellbeing washing allegations on the rise, businesses need to consider the commercial risks of not engaging meaningfully (including poor employee engagement, low productivity, high staff turnover and a damaged reputation to name but a few). However the negative cycle of wellbeing washing can be avoided when businesses lead by example and assess the impact of their mental health initiatives internally before projecting their successes externally on to clients and stakeholders. 

With thanks to my colleague, Sam Efiong, for his contribution to this blog.