WTF   //   October 16, 2023

WTF is well-being washing, and why more employers are doing it

We’ve all heard of greenwashing, now employers are being accused of applying the same kind of lip service to another area: employee well-being.

The pandemic put a renewed focus on mental health and well-being as remote work took over, daily life drastically changed and social connections dwindled over the course of several years. How much of a responsibility employers have in ensuring their workforce’s well-being also came under the spotlight, and more companies as a result have touted new offerings. 

But it’s sometimes all talk and little action – a tactic now dubbed “well-being washing.” And more than a third of businesses are doing it, according to a survey from well-being company Claro Survey based on over 1,000 U.K.-based respondents conducted in May.

Ultimately it’s when companies engage in “any form of providing lip service to wellness services for their employees but not actually delivering the goods,” said Mark Debus, clinical manager of behavioral health at Sedgwick, a third-party claims administrator.

It often happens when employers fail to really provide needed resources and support by not encouraging employees to use them, Debus said.

Since the arrival of Covid-19, the share of job postings in the U.S. advertising mental health benefits has more than tripled — jumping from 4% in January 2020 to 12% this August — according to a report from HR database Revelio Labs, based on an analysis of online job postings and employee reviews.

Employee assistance programs are the most popular benefit currently offered, and mentioned in about 10% of U.S. job postings in the last year, that report found. Those programs can provide employees with mental health support and accommodations and sometimes financial assistance, typically if they’re going through a life event like a death or a substance abuse issue. 

Wellness and well-being programs, which are broad and defined by employers themselves, are mentioned in 5% of postings, said Anna Airoldi, an economist at Revelio Labs.

Companies often promote benefits only around open enrollment time but won’t remind employees of all that’s available to them after they’ve signed up, and new employees can often get overwhelmed or struggle to find that information during onboarding, Debus said. 

"What they're kind of hoping for is that employees don't actually use those benefits because that costs money."
Mark Debus, clinical manager of behavioral health, Sedgwick.

“What they’re kind of hoping for is that employees don’t actually use those benefits because that costs money,” Debus said. 

Some groups are more affected than others, like those in client-facing roles. The Revelio report, which also analyzed online employee job reviews, found roles like claim specialist and customer service representative topped the list of positions reporting the highest levels of mental strain at work. About one in 20 mention well-being or mental health challenges in negative job reviews. 

Mental health days and access to meditation apps are mentioned in just 1% of job postings, the report found.

Another way employers are failing to live up to their well-being promises are through their handling of time off and vacation policies. Many are now touting generous PTO rules but have a culture where staff may be hesitant to take it and leave piles of work to their team or themselves to return to.

“Many employers are part of that problem I think,” Debus said. 

It’s crucial for companies to create a workplace culture where employees feel secure about taking time off and that they’re able to recharge without work interruptions if they truly want to demonstrate that they care about their mental health, he said.

“Mental health days are real. There are days when you just don't have the capacity."
Tori-Lyn Mills, licensed clinical professional counselor, Thriveworks.

It’s also important for them to feel they’re able to miss work to complete important personal tasks, including tending to their mental health.

“Mental health days are real,” said Tori-Lyn Mills, a licensed clinical professional counselor at Thriveworks. “There are days when you just don’t have the capacity,” she said.

“It’s important to have that because it allows people to have peace of mind, to take care of issues outside of work, and allows them to be present when they are at work, because those things are taken care of,” she said.