Health and wellness trends over the past few years have driven positive shifts in creating healthy dialogue and an appreciation of better work-life balance. But despite this movement, businesses are still failing to hold themselves accountable for providing better support to their employees. Absenteeism and plummeting workforce morale is often lumped into a bucket of negative stereotypes that embellish a ‘lazy’ and ‘me time’ label on the workforce.
The realisation, however, can largely be attributed to a root issue of minimal employee mental health support and recognition. The fact is, when employers create a space that genuinely supports and cares for their workers’ wellbeing and mental health, a positive culture starts to brew within the team. Staff will feel genuinely supported and valued, leading to heightened productivity, job satisfaction, and a reduction in stress-related issues.
With a safe space for open dialogue, team members will naturally and freely be able to talk about their experiences and concerns, proactively addressing challenges before they escalate. Of course, this is the ideal company we all want; one that is constantly looking to improve wellbeing support and putting their employees first. Unfortunately, the majority of Australian businesses are still struggling to move past the analysis phase and into implementation.
This often leads to companies implementing “band-aid measures,” where instead of offering any practical, long-term benefits, they fit tick-box requirements that fulfil the psychosocial safety legislation. This is where many companies fall into the trap of wellbeing washing – a new workplace phenomenon making waves across Australia, which sees firms promote mental health and wellbeing support for their employees but fail to take tangible actions.
The critical difference
Petra Velzeboer’s newly released book ‘Begin with You’ explores how companies can avoid the wellbeing washing culture. In the book, Velzeboer explains why a concerted effort must be driven from both the employer and employee to make a meaningful difference in mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. Like many corporate initiatives, wellbeing washing falls under the guise of work perks that companies advertise to prospective employees.
Stacking programs such as hybrid working, monthly outings or activities, flexible hours and fitness memberships, are all great examples of surface-level offerings that employers hope will help address engagement and wellbeing. Although these incentives are always welcome – the tangible impact they have on mental wellbeing is quite minimal. The rise in hybrid work was welcomed by many for its intrinsic benefit of greater autonomy and freedom.
It isn’t just about employees being able to work in loungewear, put on their washing or do the school run, but more about how employers are valuing employees’ time and work-life balance. The benefits of hybrid work have been felt by people and is, according to many, the best thing to come from COVID. But, where this was once seen as a wellbeing initiative, it is now a working-norm and seen as a general working benefit – and not a ‘wellbeing perk’.
Avoiding the wellbeing washing trap
The market for employee wellbeing services is growing in Australia, with the number of Employee Assistance Program (EAPs) services providers increasing by 2.7 per cent between 2022 and 2023, according to research from Ibis World. While it is encouraging to see the growth in this space, employers need to ensure they are actually making a difference.
At the end of the day, employees long for social connections and empathy, especially when things get tough in and out of working life. As wellbeing and productivity are symbiotic in nature, making sure employees are well taken care of is critical to business success.
Often, HR departments can be blindsided with the next shiny new digital tool to automate wellbeing practices, which is dangerous in the long run. Drafting in multiple outlets to support employee wellbeing can add to employee stress and confusion around accessing support.
Working in partnership with a single provider, like a third-party EAP supplier that can deliver a comprehensive and personalised solution for employees, is best practice. And, for wellbeing strategies to be successful, the supplier should deliver meaningful insights and empirical metrics. Many firms reference absenteeism as a measure of the mental health of their staff when, in fact, benchmark data indicates that this is a small proportion of the overall loss.
Presenteeism and discretionary effort has a far bigger impact on financial results of the business – and mental health scores are strongly associated with productivity. As such, effectively addressing the mental health and wellbeing of staff is no longer a ‘nice to have’ – rather, it is a commercial imperative. If businesses want to remain competitive, it is critical for leadership and HR departments to build a realistic strategy to manage employees wellbeing.
For the built strategy to have any impact, it must be measurable and trackable, identifying key areas of focus and providing a robust, comprehensive picture of the health of your workforce. In this way, employers can better understand the needs of the workforce and facilitate a sustainable strategy that keeps employees engaged, with long-term results.
Times are changing. The blanket approach to offering perks (whether unrelated programs or a new App) is no longer cutting it when it comes to addressing the mental wellbeing of staff.
It is time for industry leaders, employers and managers to not only advocate for a healthy wellbeing strategy for their employees, but also begin to put effective plans in place, supported by action and accountability. Businesses that fail to keep up are not only at risk of high turnover, but also risk growth and profitability in today’s economic climate.