Wellness Washing: What It Is, and How to Avoid It

You’ve probably heard of “greenwashing” — the practice of making a product or company look more eco-friendly and sustainable than it actually is — but what about “wellness washing” or “well-being washing”? 

Everyone from Yahoo to Fast Company is warning employees about these new workplace buzzwords, so if your HR team has never heard of them, now is the time to learn more. Once you know what wellness washing is and how to spot the signs, you can make sure your company avoids it and your team feels truly supported. 

Avoid wellness washing to enhance employee happiness

What is wellness washing? 

Wellness washing happens when a company focuses more on its public persona as a great place to work than on actually providing a strong wellness program for employees. 

Essentially, companies that wellnesswash are talking the talk, but they aren’t walking the walk. 

This infographic created by Unmind based on data from a 2023 Claro Wellbeing survey of more than 1,000 people in the United Kingdom explains the difference perfectly. As you can see, companies were more than twice as likely to celebrate mental health awareness days (talking the talk) than offer mental health support (walking the walk). 

Overall, “more than a third (38%) of people think their employer is well-being washing.”

A 2022 Deloitte and Workplace Intelligence survey of 2,100 people in four countries, including the United States and Canada, discovered similar concerns on our side of the pond. 

That survey found that company leadership significantly overestimated its employees’ physical, mental, social, and financial well-being. Overall, 91% of executives thought they were showing their employees that they cared, but only 56% of employees felt cared for, as you can see in this infographic from Deloitte.

What are the signs of wellness washing? 

To quickly spot unintentional wellness washing, try comparing your company’s social media feeds, press releases, media coverage, and web content related to employee health with the reality you see every day. 

Do your coworkers seem stressed or burnt out? Are they skipping lunch? Do they regularly stay late? Are they taking more sick days than the industry standard? Do your employee health and happiness surveys return poor results?

If your company’s social media profile paints a more cheerful picture than reality, this is a great time to enhance your wellness program. By adding new benefits or beefing up your current offerings, HR can avoid accidental wellness washing and bring your “talk” and your “walk” into alignment.

Are your current perks well-being washing in disguise?

Some articles about wellness washing call out specific perks like meditation rooms, foosball tables, and mental health fundraisers as red flags. If your company offers these benefits, you may worry that you’re well-being washing by accident. 

Photo: remote female employee smiling with appleHowever, that’s not necessarily the case!

To find out the truth, look at a specific benefit and ask yourself, “Is our business offering this perk because it looks good on paper, or because it actually helps our employees?” If your team asked for that perk, you considered it carefully, science backed up its health benefits, and/or there’s solid evidence that your employees appreciate it, you don’t need to worry that it’s well-being washing in disguise. 

Let’s look at fresh fruit and healthy snacks as an example. You might worry that you’re well-being washing by sharing photos of employees enjoying a fruit tasting on social media or listing “free fresh fruit and healthy snacks” as a benefit for new hires. But is that really wellness washing? 

Probably not! Fresh fruit has proven health benefits, and free healthy snacks at the office are an in-demand employee perk. 

  • A 2021 survey found “eating healthy” was the top wellness priority for workers, tied with staying on budget
  • A 2023  report revealed that 57% of employees consider free or subsidized food such as fruit and snacks their favorite workplace perk
  • Over 50% of employees said eating at work made them feel more productive, focused, and energized, in the same 2023 report

Looking at the data, it’s clear that stocking fresh fruit and healthy snacks in your breakroom is a real, tangible benefit for your employees — not wellness washing. In fact, it’s a great step toward “walking the walk” on employee wellness. 

Now what?

If you’re still concerned about wellness washing, use the litmus test above on all of your current perks. Then, toss out the benefits that don’t measure up and enhance the ones that do. You’ll find you have a more effective wellness program and healthier, happier employees. 

Want a step-by-step guide? Check out Umind’s four steps to avoiding wellness washing and getting your wellness program right. 

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