It’s 2023, and every notable organization is aware of the importance of the good mental health of its employees. However, when it comes to mental health, many employers merely talk the talk and do not walk the walk. Indeed, workplace mental health support is often performative, which is why well-being washing was coined. Claro Wellbeing says, “Wellbeing washing is when an organization makes a public display of support for mental health initiatives but lacks adequate mental wellbeing support.” A recent survey by Claro Wellbeing revealed that while 71% of workplaces celebrated mental health awareness days, only 29% got a good rating for the mental health support they provided to their employees. 

Sadly, well-being washing is on the rise, so we need to discuss how companies can improve employee well-being. Let’s take a look. 

1. Ask your employees what they need

Instead of assuming you know what is best for your employees’ mental health, directly approach them and ask them what they need. Career Coach Sara Madera explains why this is important.

“To not be performative or offer employees what companies think workers want, organizations should ask their workforce their priorities. I recently saw a meme that showed what companies think women wish to do on maternity leave (baby shower, basket when the baby is born, time off) vs. what new parents want (paid leave, support services – lactation, career coaching, and flexible schedule), which often shows the misalignment of employers and employees.

Depending on the diversity of their workforce, it may be clear that there is a service or support that can meet the needs of most employees. But employers likely need to offer benefits to meet a wide variety of life stages, whether mental health, career guidance, or caretaking support. For example, a flexible spending wallet can help new parents, empty nesters, new to the workforce, and those near retirement, rather than each having to advocate separately for policies and support that they need.”

2. Hire a chief wellbeing officer

According to this Fortune article, more and more companies are hiring for a role that came into existence because of the pandemic: chief wellness officer. The COVID-19 pandemic has left a devastating impact on our collective mental health, and companies are now hiring chief wellness officers to manage employees’ mental health. Colleen Saringer, Chief Wellbeing Officer at Colleen Saringer Consulting, clarifies why they are essential for providing mental health support at work. 

“Companies can improve employee wellbeing in many ways, but the first thing that needs to be done is to take this job duty away from HR. This critical work was never meant to be overseen by a team that employees distrust. HR is in place to protect the company, not the people. It was also never meant to be just another thing on a person’s list of responsibilities. One day, long ago, leadership looked at the HR team and decided that they (the company) needed to look like they cared about their people. They also needed to find a way to lower the cost of employee medical benefits, which is often one of the largest expenditures for an organization.

Because the company wanted to look like they cared but did not invest in what well-being at work truly is—the health of a person inside the context of the health of the workplace—they decided not to spend additional dollars (cost of a full-time employee) and hire an expert such as myself, or others like myself, who hold degrees in public health, health education, health promotion, etc. Instead, they assigned wellness to the team inside HR that handles medical benefits. As a result, the medical benefits team turned workplace wellness into what they thought it was: programs and perks. For example, a yoga class, a lunch and learn, biometric screenings, health risk assessments, and if employees participated, they would earn incentives to lower the cost of insurance premiums. 

This is different from how things should be done. 

 Workplace wellbeing is hard work. It needs a leader to steer the ship, someone who understands how to collaborate and connect the dots of how work works against a person’s health (a determinant of health). In short, it needs a Chief Wellbeing Officer. Companies who have this person in place have leaned on the research that informs how workplace wellbeing needs to be executed for it to work successfully, which is that a dedicated person must have this as their sole responsibility.”

3. Set a benchmark and create a dialogue system

It is easy to get lost in organizing and setting up “perfect” employee assistance programs for your employees. Akash Karia, a high-performance coach and organizational psychologist, explains why setting a benchmark is far more effective and better uses your time.

“In the matter of truly ensuring employee wellness, the success is more in actions that help the employee reduce stress than on increased perks and activities that do not offer them lasting satisfaction, but instead, add to their anxiety, especially if they are constantly behind on accomplishing tasks and finishing workplace assignments.

In my experience, the simple rule is to prioritize self-care by setting a benchmark for employee tasks and expectations from them. And the key is to avoid unhealthy workplace competition and comparison among employees. Employees should be allowed the opportunity to grow at a healthy pace. Also, when workload does not reduce or continues to pile up for the employee, something significant must be done to help them reduce stress.

Finally, every employee is different and has unique and specific experiences, so you need to directly communicate with them to identify the areas where they need help. So, instead of assuming an employee needs an extra perk to motivate them further into efficiency, directly initiate dialogue with them.”