Avoid ‘wellbeing washing’ by redefining your approach to employee benefits

In the battle to secure, retain, and engage talent, employers have stepped up their corporate wellness offerings. However, by focusing too much on traditional wellness ‘activities’ that fail to consider employees’ actual needs, these investments often miss the target.

Wellbeing isn’t a quick fix

Ideas of ‘wellness’ or ‘wellbeing’ often mean different things to different people. These ideas will vary depending on an individual’s work and career stage, life, and lifestyle choices, all of which are constantly evolving. Similarly, the landscape of work has changed dramatically over the last few years, along with employee expectations with regards to how work is conducted and balanced with their personal lives. Rather than a static outcome, therefore, wellbeing support should be adaptable to meet these ever-evolving needs.

Despite this, research suggests that few employers are offering such support. According to a survey conducted by the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (opens a new window), 51% of UK employees believe their employer is guilty of so-called ‘wellbeing washing’ – in which employers use ‘quick-fix’ offerings – including free-fruit, gym memberships, and yoga classes to attract and retain talent, while simultaneously pushing staff towards unsustainable workloads, long hours, and burnout. Other such offerings include online ‘wellbeing services’, employee assistance programmes for exclusively out-of-hours issues, or discounts for still-too-expensive holidays.

Furthermore, where wellbeing initiatives are offered, they do not always have the desired impact. Research by Claro (opens a new window) found (opens a new window) that 71% of organisations participate in mental health awareness initiatives, but only 36% of their staff describe the offerings as ‘good’.

While it is unlikely that businesses are intentionally ignoring the needs of their staff, they may be swept up in a ‘tick-box’ exercise of providing a wellbeing programme because it is the right thing to do. Without measuring the success of their programme, employers may lack insight into whether it is driving real change or adding value. The net result is that many employers are falling short of employee demands and expectations.

Importantly, programmes to deliver wellbeing should not be viewed in isolation, but rather as an integral component of an organisation’s employee benefits offering. This in turn is a key pillar of the broader employee value proposition (EVP), and as such, any benefits or wellbeing offering should be designed and implemented with that symbiosis in mind.

A connected strategy

Starting with some basic questions is a great way to build a connected strategy. The following questions may serve as guidance:

What is the objective of the EVP and how does it align with the organisation’s business and strategic plans, including any diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) objectives?

  • How well does the employee benefits programme align with the EVP?

  • How does the employee benefits programme align with the actual needs and preferences of the workforce?

  • Are the benefits accessed, communicated, and implemented in an equitable and inclusive manner?

  • Is the benefits programme conveyed holistically, all in one place?

It is astonishing what employees will tell their employers when asked the right questions. Start by creating employee focus groups and encourage employees to get involved to talk about what health and wellbeing means to them. Consider undertaking an employee-wide survey and work with employee focus groups to encourage participation in the survey across their work cohorts.

To attract, engage and retain employees, organisations must challenge their current benefits and wellbeing programme against five pillars of wellbeing:

  • Physical

  • Mental

  • Financial

  • Social

  • Workplace

If the alignment and design of the benefits programme includes authentic, credible, and engaging messaging, the journey towards a thriving workforce can be a short one. Importantly, this requires understanding the demographic of your employees. For example, a younger cohort will have different needs from those in their 40s or older.

Targeting a diverse and changing workforce

It’s a significant challenge for employers to create a meaningful EVP that is fit for purpose, whilst simultaneously addressing other business priorities, including DE&I and ESG objectives. As above, every employee has different values, motivations, and requirements. Traditionally viewed ‘wellness activities’ such as onsite-massages or yoga are unappealing to many and are not the solution to deliver impactful changes to those most in need.

Alternatively, where more ‘progressive’ offerings are provided, such as fertility or gender dysphoria support, organisations may inadvertently create a mismatch with their DE&I strategy, such as by deploying restrictive eligibility criteria or offering the service on a reimbursement basis. Furthermore, spending cards are a novel addition to a benefits offering, redeemable with specific merchants. Whilst great for employee choice, if some of these merchants have sustainability concerns or have known human resource issues (e.g. zero-hour contracts) then a conflict with an organisations’ ESG strategy may arise.

In summary, to avoid the risk of benefits/wellbeing washing, your benefits should therefore be designed in a way that addresses employees’ evolving needs across all domains of wellbeing and be connected to the overall EVP and business strategy. For some organisations, a review of their communications and engagement strategy around an existing offering, communicated holistically, is an excellent first start that can yield a tangible and low-cost impact. Further along the curve, an offering could be re-shaped through a DE&I/ESG lens along with an analytical deep-dive into employee benefits service metrics and employee-led insights.

Redefine your approach to employee benefits with an authentic, credible, and employee-centric connected strategy.

For further information, please visit the Employee Benefits Advisory Service page (opens a new window), or contact:

Tom Curran, Head of Wellbeing, Lockton Ireland

E: tom.curran@lockton.com

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