Wellbeing washing vs supporting mental health in the workplace

People are leaving the workforce, and a key to keeping them is protecting their mental health at work. Here are some tangible ways to enable wellbeing.

by Lauren Payne

Employees’ wellbeing, and particularly support for mental health in the workplace, are more important than ever in 2023. Companies that want to retain good employees need to be thinking carefully about their actions — and their management approach. We all know that employees leave bad managers, not bad companies. Companies could rank as one of the top places to work, but if individual managers are not supporting employee wellbeing, people will leave — and this can be made even worse by out of touch C-suite executives.

A record-breaking 50.6 million people quit their jobs in 2022 (compared to 42.1 million in 2019). The best way to retain your best employees is by investing in mental health. This means that there are some mental health buzzwords and trends that you need to know about as a manager in 2023.

Wellbeing-washing’ won’t work as a substitute for mental health in the workplace?

Companies and managers need to take tangible action to promote employee mental health. This must go beyond releasing generic statements about the company’s focus on wellbeing.

You’ve probably heard of ‘greenwashing’ — the act of creating a false or misleading statement to convince customers that a company’s products are environmentally friendly. In the ‘mental health at work’ space, we now also have ‘wellbeing washing’. This is “when businesses publicly advocate for employee wellbeing and good mental health support without backing it up with tangible benefits for their workforce.”

It is relatively easy to avoid wellbeing washing. Probably the two main aspects for managers to consider are smaller workloads and open conversations. It may not be immediately possible to deliver smaller workloads, but you can still let employees know that they’re supported and can talk to you when they feel overwhelmed. It’s also a good idea to foster open conversation with the people you manage. Take time to check in with them and see how they’re doing. Don’t push too hard or make things too personal — but do make clear that they are welcome to discuss issues that may be affecting their work

A personal reflection

I have monthly check-ins with my manager. The last one ended something like this:

Manager: “So, anything else you want to talk about?”

Me: “No, I think that’s all. I’ll have those projects in by the deadlines we discussed.”

Manager: “Okay, good. Thank you. But how are you? Overwhelmed at all? You mentioned allergies being an issue recently, how are those affecting you? Remember if you need to take any sick leave or mental health days just ask and we’ll accommodate you.”

This wasn’t a particularly lengthy conversation. However, it did remind me that we are encouraged to take days off when necessary—and that was helpful. It means I don’t need to be worried about being unproductive if I do need to take time off. It’s a simple but very effective way to avoid ‘wellbeing washing’.

How does this work across the organization? It is important to offer benefits, but also ensure that employees know how to access them. The best companies around the world are setting these trends, from employee recognition and companywide time off to physical health support and building awareness about mental health struggles. Look to them for inspiration.

The C-suite gap in workplace wellbeing

Deloitte recently posted its latest research about C-suite involvement in wellbeing. The study found that top executives can be a little out of touch with employees’ wellbeing. They can also underestimate how hard life may be for those further down the corporate ladder. In fact, a massive 84% of executives think that employees have excellent or good mental health in the workplace. However, only 59% of employees said the same. This is interesting, because executives certainly aren’t exempt from mental health problems, with 26% of top executives and 23% of employees reporting feeling depressed.

These findings are not necessarily surprising. Top executives are often not near other employees to see the issues firsthand, especially when companies are large and have several offices around the world. They might not even have any contact with many other employees.

This puts extra pressure on those who report directly to executives to pass on the necessary information. The Deloitte report notes that 81% of top executives consider themselves “health-savvy” but 68% admit not doing enough to protect employees’ wellbeing. In contrast, only 31% of employees consider their company’s executives to be health-savvy. This further emphasizes the gap between what executives think and what other employees are feeling.

Acting on wellbeing and mental health in the workplace

What action can companies take to address this gap? Transparency is key. When employees know and understand the processes and people throughout the organization, they tend to be happier. Executives need to keep other employees informed. They also need to ensure that they stay abreast of current working conditions and how people feel in the organization. Ways to do this include confidential employee satisfaction surveys, encouraging open conversations, and enabling managers to communicate any issues within the organization.

Top executives also need to ensure they are empathetic to other employees. The median annual salary of a chief executive in May 2021 was 213,020 USD. The median salary of employees across all occupations was 58,260 USD, and office employees made an average of just 43,430 USD. When people are struggling to pay their rent, it is unlikely to make anyone feel good if executives give motivational speeches about how they can relate because their annual vacation has to be shorter this year.

Top executives need to take action to learn more about what is going on in other employees’ lives and how to relate to, and fix, those issues. If employees are openly struggling with work overload and there’s the budget to hire more employees—then hire more employees. If they are experiencing stress from work and life, consider offering counseling or resources that are available through a work-offered insurance plan. If employees are concerned about their physical health, offer benefits like an online fitness platform, such as Apple Fitness, Nike Training Club, Peloton One, or Daily Burn. The key to all of this is open and honest conversations between levels within the organization.

Getting it right on wellbeing and mental health in the workplace

There is no question that mental health in the workplace is a major issue, especially with employee quit rates hitting all-time records. The two go hand in hand—and companies need to implement tangible programs to help employees. (Not to mention in order to provide transparency around the social pillar of sustainability reporting among other rising OHS issues.)  Managers need to ensure those they manage are healthy and feel supported. Executives need to connect with their employees and managers to learn about any issues within the organization, find solutions—and then implement them. Employee health and wellbeing is critical to the success of any organization. Investing in employees mentally, emotionally, and physically is key and it starts with open conversations.