The 7 Sins of “Wellbeing Washing” – When Talk and Actions Don’t Match

I’ve been working over 65 hours a week for months, and our HR just announced a big investment in wellbeing: we’re all getting Fitbits.” ”Our ranking in Great Place to Work was just added as a KPI for our bonuses. I guess we’ll have a great workplace, then.” Corporate wellbeing is booming. And so are grandiose slogans and gestures related to employee wellbeing. Instead of just chiming in on the hype, here’s a slightly different, perhaps controversial view. Is rubber really meeting the road, or will “greenwashing” be followed by “wellbeing washing”?

In 2005, General Electric launched its “Ecomagination” campaign advertising its work for the environment. In the background, it kept lobbying against new clean air EPA requirements. In 2000, British Petroleum rebranded as BP, changing its brand image to a green and yellow sunburst designed to evoke “warm and fuzzy feelings” about the planet. BP’s oil business or pollution, however, did not change. The intent was only to change perceptions.

Greenwashing has been around for a long time. The term was coined in 1986 by an environmentalist struck by a note at a Fiji resort asking guests to pick up their towels to “reduce ecological damage”. The irony? The resort was expanding, with little regard for the environmental impact. Greenwashing is, simply put, when a company exaggerates, lies, or misleads consumers about how environmentally friendly their goods or services are.

There’s something similar happening with wellbeing. Over the past decade, corporate wellbeing has gone from a nice-to-have to a must-have. Yet, few organisations know how to address wellbeing holistically, and impactfully. Hence, talk about wellbeing and “putting people first” does not always match actions. We get “wellbeing washing”.

What is wellbeing washing really?

In 2008, the TerraChoice Group reviewed 2,200+ products in North America, concluding that over 95 percent committed at least one of “Seven Sins of Greenwashing” (the sins of the hidden trade-off, no proof, vagueness, worshipping false labels, irrelevance, the lesser of two evils, and fibbing). The drivers for greenwashing and wellbeing washing are, however, slightly different – while greenwashing is focused on the consumer, wellbeing washing mainly targets employees. Hence, where greenwashing is more about “fancy slogans”, wellbeing washing is more about making offered services seem more comprehensive or impactful than they actually are.

Observing the corporate wellbeing industry for the past decade, here’s my take on the seven sins of wellbeing washing:

  1. The sin of superficiality. Addressing wellbeing superficially with e.g. fresh smoothies, stand-up desks, or yoga classes, while neglecting the holistic nature of wellbeing. For example, a stand-up desk will do little for your health if you are using it 70 hours a week.
  2. The sin of ‘just talk’. Making large, visible gestures with limited impact, e.g. inviting a well-known keynote speaker to talk about burnout, but not being able to answer the audience question: “Where can I turn to if I’m feeling burnt out?”
  3. The sin of first-mover bias. It’s easy to accommodate the needs of the healthiest – they use and love wellbeing services. But listen too much, and you’ll end up with an in-house gym and triathlon training – essentially giving perks to people who do not need them.
  4. The sin of shifting responsibility. This is about excessively highlighting the individual’s responsibility, while downplaying organisational responsibility. For example, getting coaching for fatigued employees, but not dealing with the manager overseeing a fatigued team.
  5. The sin of misleading measurement. I was once asked to pitch to an HR lead due to problems with work-life conflict. She brushed it off: “We offer psychologist services, but the take up last year was zero, so our people are fine”. Don’t get me wrong, measurement is great – but what you measure matters. If talent turnover is high, perhaps aiming for zero psychologist services isn’t the best metric? We are working on finding good ways to measure corporate wellbeing with Aalto University’s Future of Work research group, and I can tell you: it’s not easy. But it is doable.
  6. The sin of “one-size-fits-all”. Attempting to find one wellbeing service to fit 90% of employees – with little regard to need. In reality, the smoking cessation programme used by 2% or the coaching-on-demand service that attracts 22%, may be money much better spent than the “up your steps” campaign for 72%. (You may even need all of them for a portfolio of impactful interventions to target your biggest challenges.) “Okay for everyone” is likely “great for no one”.
  7. The sin of neglecting wellbeing culture. We humans love simple solutions. Eat a pill, take a course, write a checklist. Done. But wellbeing is complex – it’s individual, messy, contextual, ever-changing. With apps, services, training, and coaching you can improve wellbeing. But thriving at scale only happens in a culture of wellbeing. And that’s a long-term commitment: a wellbeing strategy, the right KPIs, training for your leaders, and repeating the desired behaviours from boardroom down and shopfloor up. (Don’t know where to begin? Our team at Hintsa can help. But here’s the simplest tip for getting started: ask people you work with “How are you?” – and really listen to the answer.)

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Don’t be afraid of wellbeing washing, invest in the future

These “sins” may sound negative. But it’s critique with a point: the hope is for wellbeing washing to be a mere short-term nuisance. Two reasons. First, recent news of carbon curbing news from Exxon to Shell to Chevron certainly give hope that the era of corporate bullshitting has peaked. Second, I believe us to be slightly more alert as employees than as consumers. The detergent I use, the car I drive, or the milk I consume are important – but they don’t come even close to the place where I spend a third of my adult waking hours: work. So with a lower threshold for snazzy slogans, empty words, and misleading measurement, we’ll hopefully soon have not only sustainable consumption but also sustainable work.

So for managers now scared of coming across as “wellbeing washing” with their bold visions for their workforce, know this: your vision does not need to be “this is what we do for our people today” but “this is what we want to do for our people – help us take steps to get there”. Change in people and culture takes time. What can you do in 2021 to avoid being labelled a “wellbeing washer”?

Agree or disagree? Have examples of wellbeing washing? Ping me on LinkedIn.

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