‘Wellbeing washing’: how HR leaders can really make an impact and deliver ROI


  • The battle to secure and hold talent means that employers have stepped up their corporate wellness offerings. However, the consensus is that most employees are not enthralled with what their organisations are bringing to the table.

  • Much like the term ‘greenwashing’, ‘well-being washing’ describes how some companies are hiding behind their well-being initiatives, rather than addressing the real issues impacting their staff.

  • Positively addressing employee well-being directly impacts absenteeism and its associated costs.

Well-being programs are not matching employee expectations

Some organisations have been quick to invest significant funding into well-being initiatives to attract and retain workers. However, this investment is often made without much consideration of an employee’s actual needs.

For example, research by Claro Wellbeing found that 71% of organisations participate in mental health awareness initiatives, but only 36% of their staff describe the offerings as ‘good’.

51% of employees believe their employer is also guilty of so-called “well-being washing”, according to a UK survey conducted by the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

The research suggests current work initiatives such as free fruit in the office often do not hit the mark and are rather for show. In the case of EAP programs, employees were not utilising these as much as they could, particularly when sessions were scheduled during lunch breaks.

Whilst these sorts of offerings might be considered a “nice to have” and have an important role to play in the workplace, when it comes to under-resourced staff who are overburdened and overworked – they might not be enough.

It is unlikely that businesses are intentionally ignoring the needs of their staff, but they might be swept up in the corporate “tick-box" exercise of providing a well-being program because it is the right thing to do, or just haven’t thought to measure the success of their program to see if it is driving any real change.

Reviewing your current well-being program to ensure ROI

To attract, engage and retain employees, organisations must challenge their current well-being program against the four pillars of well-being:

  1. Mental well-being

  2. Physical well-being

  3. Financial well-being

  4. Social well-being

Four questions to ask in the discovery phase:

  1. Understand what the drivers are across the business which may be impacting well-being.

  2. Understand how the operational rhythm of the organisation can support the delivery of well-being services to employees.

  3. Consider not only well-being as a deliverable to benefit staff but also just as importantly, ensure that the organisation does not increase its risk profile by engaging in a program that extends beyond the remit of an employer and exposes the business unintentionally.

  4. Consider the legislative and insurance frameworks to ensure that exposures are assessed and mitigated. This will include but not be limited to:

  • Considering the legislative framework surrounding wellbeing in the workplace, e.g. mentally healthy workplaces, respectful workplaces and privacy legislation.

  • Consider the Directors’ and Officers’ liability that could potentially arise from introducing this program and ensure risks are assessed, controlled and mitigated.

  • Consider the cyber security risk from the use of third- and fourth-party applications and services to protect the organisation from the risk of cyber-attack or data security breaches which may constitute a breach of the Australian Privacy Legislation and cause reputational damage.

What employers can do

It is amazing what employees will tell you when you ask the right questions. Start by creating employee focus groups. Encourage employees to participate in focus groups to talk about what health and well-being means to them. You can then undertake an employee-wide health survey and work with the employee focus groups to encourage participation in the survey across their work cohorts.

Final thoughts

Employers need to first approach well-being through a holistic lens, rather than seeing well-being as a list of services to offer. A far more successful approach is understanding the demographic of your employees. For example, if they are a younger cohort their needs will differ greatly from those over 55. That is why it is imperative that businesses learn as much as possible about their employees and their needs.

When you focus your well-being solution to address certain needs, you will likely get a higher uptake and then you’ll also be able to monitor whether you’re genuinely seeing a return because you know what you’re looking at and where there is room for improvement. Well-being is no longer just yoga classes and massages. It might be workforce planning, change management tactics, or a shift in working rotas and patterns. Even better, wrapping well-being around a team that is in the midst of change or redesign will benefit longer-term outcomes to broader strategic plans.

And to truly reduce absence levels, employees need flexibility and to be offered initiatives at their point of need, rather than a service that they might not have the time for or that is of no interest to them. Only then, can employers expect to see an effective well-being program with a successful ROI.