Employee well-being: what is 'well-being washing' and why does it matter?

Mar 19, 2024

An employee experience strategy creates a positive and meaningful experience throughout the entire employee journey. Read on to see how to an employee experience strategy enhances employee engagement, satisfaction, and well-being, which ultimately leads to improved performance and organizational success.

Many organizations craft employee well-being policies and offer programs and benefits that support employees. Indeed, employee well-being plays a central role in everything from work culture to productivity and growth, so it should be a priority. But that’s not always the case.

There’s a growing problem: well-being washing. As HR Executive warns, this happens when employer organizations pay lip service to employee health and wellness, while not following through with genuine support for employees. We’ve all seen examples of this practice in action, when organizations tout their commitment to the general public and (sometimes) to job seekers. When employers prioritize external promotional information about their employee well-being efforts without educating current employees about the resources available, their people are either an afterthought or left mostly in the dark. What’s going on here?

Much like the ‘greenwashing’ that product manufacturers do to make it seem like they’re doing a great thing without necessarily actually doing a great thing, the trend of well-being washing has recently come into the spotlight. It’s been used by certain employers to gain clout — from customers, job seekers, and new hires — for supporting employee health and wellness, without ensuring that employees are aware of the benefits available to them or how to take advantage of them.

One study based on a survey of UK workers revealed that more than a third of businesses are engaging in well-being washing, noting that companies often promote benefit programs during open enrollment and neglect to communicate about them the rest of the year. While research is lacking on the well-being washing trend in the U.S., we expect the prevalence and severity would be similar.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the harmful effects of well-being washing, why meaningful support for staff well-being is crucial to business success, examples of effective well-being initiatives, and best practices for promoting well-being throughout the organization.

Negative Impacts of Well-being Washing

What leaders at these organizations may not realize is they aren’t likely to fully realize how employee well-being benefits the business — from improved job satisfaction to higher productivity. We’re left wondering, what’s the sense in offering well-being programs if your employees don’t know about them?

Here’s a look at just some of the ways the practice of well-being washing can negatively impact an organization’s employee experience, culture, productivity, and growth potential.

  • Lack of support: When organizations don’t really provide adequate resources, employees feel unsupported (and thus unengaged).
  • Increased stress and burnout: When well-being is not genuinely supported, employees feel pressure to prioritize work over their health and wellness.
  • Decreased trust: Trust is shattered when employees perceive well-being is not genuinely valued.
  • Lower productivity and performance: When initiatives are just for show, it decreases morale and job satisfaction.
  • Difficulty in attracting and retaining top talent: Authenticity shows through. Even if you try to hide it, social media and employer review sites will expose the truth. Organizations will struggle if they can’t genuinely show a supportive and well-rounded work environment.

In the U.S. nearly 40% of employers plan to increase spending on well-being programs in 2024, according to a report from NFP, an employer benefits firm. This could be great news — if it means more employees will actually be able to take advantage of those programs. If organizations invest the dollars in well-being programs, but not the time and energy in  promoting those offerings to employees, employees can’t possibly feel the maximum benefits, nor will the organization see the ROI leaders might expect.

These days, employee well-being is heavily driven by work-life balance. In our Q1 2024 Workplace Trends Report, we noted that organizations that prioritize work-life balance will see better results by expanding employee support efforts in 2024, which includes promoting awareness of employee well-being programs.

We saw other noteworthy trends related to employee well-being, too. For one, the increasingly younger and more diverse workforce is demanding a healthier work-life balance and workplaces that support their well-being. Also, Deloitte research found that more than half (59%) of employees said they would consider taking a job with a company that offers better well-being benefits than their current employer. Together, these observations indicate that organizations must provide meaningful employee support in order to attract and retain top talent. Engaging in well-being washing is likely to contribute to lower employee satisfaction and could even fuel higher rates of turnover.

Well-being is Part of a Holistic Approach  

When organizations include additional lifestyle services as part of total benefits packages, employees are better supported to check items off their "to-do" lists. This effectively provides them with more free time when they’re not working and allows them to better focus when they are. These types of services help support on-site, hybrid and remote employees in achieving their work-life balance goals and in better managing their personal commitments. Relevant, meaningful employee benefits and perks also contribute to employee well-being because when we as humans feel a sense of accomplishment, it has a positive impact on our overall well-being. It’s all connected.

Encouraging a healthy work-life balance will require employers to consider various contributing factors such as workload, well-being, socializing, restoration, and more. Taking a comprehensive, holistic approach shows employees that you value them as human beings, which makes them feel supported — which translates into better engagement and higher motivation. In turn, this supports employee well-being and contributes to a positive work culture.

Here’s a deeper look at how investing in — and adequately promoting — well-being programs can improve culture and provide a better employee experience. When done right, well-being initiatives that provide meaningful support do the following.

  • Shows employees they are valued. Prioritizing employee wellness demonstrates a genuine concern for their health and happiness.
  • Promotes good work-life balance and can help employees reduce stress.
  • Encourages an inclusive environment by promoting physical and mental wellness to create a safe space where employees can be themselves.
  • Supports talent attraction and competition for quality candidates. Having well-being programs shows prospective employees that companies are committed to employees. If high rates of employees actually benefit from those programs, even better.
Examples of Well-being Initiatives

These are just some of the ways to meaningfully support employee well-being.

  • Provide flexible work schedules
  • Deliver mindfulness training
  • Equip employees with mental health support
  • Include stress reduction programs like fitness and nutrition plans
  • Offer time-saving programs
  • Supply employee support services like errand running and meal delivery

A new study by Oxford University found that employee wellness programs are largely ineffective, often because they neglect to improve the day-to-day employee experience. So, as you craft your well-being initiatives, ensure that the support you offer aligns with your employees needs. When in doubt, conduct an employee feedback survey and ask about their biggest obstacles to wellness and what types of support would help them the most — and then make decisions about your employee well-being programs based on those insights.

How to Promote Well-being Initiatives

Educating employees on well-being policies and programs is part of the larger promotion strategy of employee benefits. But as with medical and dental coverage, employees can’t fully benefit from these offerings if they don’t understand what they offer, how they work, and how to utilize them.

We cannot understate the importance of marketing all of your employee benefit offerings. Creating an intentional strategy to increase awareness is the first step to boosting engagement with employee benefits. Incorporating personalized storytelling to tailor benefit messaging to employees’ needs and priorities is an effective way to spread the word and get employees’ attention. Marketing your well-being offers shouldn’t be confined to email blasts, either. There are a wide variety of tactics for promoting awareness of employee benefits and the most effective strategy is a plan that involves several different types of communication, from benefit fairs to digital signage to your employee intranet.

Embracing Well-being As a Company Value

While the motivations that lead to well-being washing are largely a cultural problem, as Fast Company notes in their advice on how to stop it from happening, it’s a problem that can be solved by intentional action. Proactively promoting benefits to employees — and following through to ensure they understand the benefits they have and how to use them — is a clear path away from well-being washing and toward a work culture that prioritizes employee health and wellness for the benefit of everyone involved.


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