The Inconvenient Truth About Workplace Health and Wellbeing 

In mid-July 2023, the UK Government launched two consultations – ‘Tax incentives for occupational health’ and ‘Occupational health: Working Better’. Both provide suggestions encouraging companies to support the health of their employees through occupational health services. These consultations ere triggered by a record number of 2.5 million of the working age population who are economically inactive due to long-term illness. And alarmingly, unlike all other G7 countries, UK’s economic inactivity has not reduced and is now higher than pre-pandemic levels. This, coupled with 1.8 million employees suffering from work-related illness – another all-time high, our society and work are making more of us ill.

Simultaneously, there has been an explosion in workplace wellbeing interventions and support. On average organisations now offer 45 health interventions, which is an increase of 63% just in the last three years. Businesses have reacted by reaching for popular options of Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) and Mental Health First Aid (MHFA), with EAPs growing over 3,353% in the last 20 years, and with support services now available to 24.5 million employees. Similarly, MHFA England reported massive growth in the number of participants, training over 20,000 organisations and certifying over half a million MHFAiders in the UK. Other initiatives such as wellbeing champions, health awareness days, wellbeing days off, and encouraging managers to care about their team’s wellbeing have all been popular. However, it seems like the more organisations spend on health and wellbeing for their employees, the sicker they become – so why is there a disconnect?

wellbeing washing

One of the reasons is ‘wellbeing washing’ which like ‘greenwashing’ in the climate change world has crept into our businesses. It’s best described as an organisation virtue signalling that it has the wellbeing of its employees at heart, but without backing it up with tangible action. The Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) refers to wellbeing washing as employers talking a good game but failing to get to the core wellbeing issues of what employees require, and a disconnect between what is offered and what is needed being potentially harmful – and clearly evident in the data.

Equally as concerning is what is driving this behaviour. In Reward and Employee Benefit Association’s (REBA) recent employee wellbeing research, 61% of organisations indicated that the current accountability for employee wellbeing is to create brand awareness and to publicise what they do, with a further 31% of organisations seeking to introduce this approach in the next two years. That’s a total of 92%. This is in stark contrast with 84% of organisations having no plans to publicly report on their employee wellbeing, and 76% not planning to link executives’ pay to the cause. Given all this data, it would appear that organisations are quick to proudly show off their wellbeing initiatives, irrespective if they work and yet not hold anyone accountable. It also seems that this approach is primarily driven by the need to attract talent into what could possibly be harmful environments. Of course, employees can see through this pretty quickly.

However, not all companies are alike – there are some organisations that look to do the right thing, although sadly, they only go part way. Many do not tackle the root cause of workplace illnesses and often fail.  This may be unintentional, as organisations ‘think’ they are doing what is best for their employees but are failing to grasp the bigger picture of what is actually happening within their organisations. It begs the question whether companies are willing to look hard enough and ask the hard questions?

Rarely do organisations collect or analyse data effectively to be able to implement a primary intervention that actually gets to the heart of wellbeing. In most cases, organisations are focused on trying to solve organisational issues with individual solutions as it is easier to fix the people than it is the work. Most wellbeing issues in organisations are centred around job demands, resources, job intensification, job flow and design, relationships, rewards, role autonomy, job insecurity, environment, technology, bullying, discrimination, support, organisational justice, ethics and management – which require organisational awareness and interventions. And EAPs, MHFA, 4 days weeks, and other individualised supports do very little to positively move the needle on these issues.

Whilst personal development or time away from an unhealthy environment can offer temporary respite, they don’t change organisations systems, environments, or security that mostly affect wellbeing – it’s like blaming toast for being too burnt.

What can be done?

To safeguard a company against wellbeing washing, it requires a high level of integrity, honesty, and transparency from top to bottom. Organisations must take the brave move of shining a light into the dark corners of its business to really be able to improve the wellbeing of their workforce, or at the very least, prevent harm. Organisations can live their values and seek to close the say-do gap by really understanding their workforce and what primary interventions are required… and then delivering on those requirements intentionally. We have already seen from the Great Resignation and Quiet Quitting trends that Generation Z and Millennials see through virtue signalling and would rather work for values-led organisations. To this end, companies would do well to challenge some of the following areas:

competent data gathering and interpretation

As decisions become more data driven, it is critical to be able to collect clean and accurate data – quantitative and qualitative. Consultation with the workforce is essential, and it is important to hear what they have to say, as they are likely to have most of the answers. It is also paramount that organisations are competent in interpreting what the data indicates, as this holds the key to driving a wellbeing strategy. Only when the data is well-interpreted can interventions then be considered with clear objectives. Reducing absenteeism, presenteeism, and leaveism requires a different M.O in helping create a thriving workplace. And although findings from the data may be a hard pill to swallow, presenting it in an easy-to-understand format can help obtain organisational buy-in. Workplace interventions are collective, and involves a change of systems, processes, and policies – it is not a one-time, individual correction.

effective measurement of Interventions

With many ineffective interventions being introduced into organisations, it begs the question whether the wellbeing initiative was adopted because it sounded good, or if it was because a competitor had introduced in hope that it works. As wellbeing is subjective, what works for one company need not work for another. The frameworks, governance, policies and systems that organisations adopt and implement may be similar, however, the processes and outcomes are likely be bespoke and shaped around to each organisation’s beliefs, culture, motivation, and leadership.

For example, if we take teams sports, the framework and rules are the same for both sides, but teams play in different ways that suit their players’ abilities, and therefore, yield different results. A lack of this understanding is a sure sign that organisations have either not collected sufficient data, or taken the time to interpret it appropriately. The data is the key, it can guide organisations in their decisions to use the right interventions, and tackle the root cause(s). Identifying measurement areas of how an intervention is implemented and what its outcomes might be are now vitally important to the health and wellbeing of a workforce. All findings and results must be transparent, and again, presented in an appropriate manner (graphs/ infographics), to gain organisational commitment.

Interrogation of suppliers

Most organisations will need to seek the support of external suppliers and with over hundreds of thousands of health and wellbeing apps on the market, it can be difficult to see the wood for the trees. A clear, data-driven understanding of what is required can help organisations request evidence-based information from a supplier and verify how the evidence was researched. It is important not to be blinded by the latest technology or a slick sales presentation during decision-making. This is an area that many workplace health and wellbeing providers tend to exploit. Be sure to proactively ask for testimonials, and to speak to other customers to see if the service or product has really helped. And before parting with any money, ensure that the external supplier(s) can deliver what is required, and due diligence is carried out. Always remember that transparency is key to hold a supplier accountable, and an organisation is the gatekeeper to what its workforce is exposed to.

strategic communication

A frequent sign of organisations falling victim to wellbeing washing is the inadequate communication of wellbeing support. This usually happens in the form of disseminating one-size-fits-all messages to the entire workforce in two or three forms, where the communication falls short of what its required to deliver, and hence, fails employees.

In this instance, organisations would do well to understand behaviour theories, such as the transtheoretical model or COM-B, and adapt their messaging to reflect that, as employees are at different stages of thinking, have different backgrounds, and require different prompts and nudges. It is vital to use multiple forms of communication that are easily understandable and have simple steps to follow. There is almost no point in having a wellbeing strategy if communication and implementation are not thoroughly thought through.

way forward…

To rid organisations of wellbeing washing, taking accountability for their actions and the environments they subject their workforce to is the first real step. Not only is it a legal requirement, surely, it is morally the right thing to do too? As yet, it is difficult to find evidence of organisations fully fulfilling their obligations. Continuing to show tokenistic support to employees when they are ill, but failing to do anything about the issues that have made employees ill in the first place, only perpetuates the vicious spending and illness cycles…and is bad for business. The world of work and the world around us would benefit greatly from preventative health and wellbeing initiatives that puts people first.

Author: Stuart Mace – EFS Volunteers’ Hub Lead

Photo credit: Norma Mortenson

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