Don’t Be Fooled By “Well-Washing”

Many organizations are expanding wellness program offerings that move beyond the physical dimension of health (biometric screenings, BMI, health risks), such as building resiliency, managing stress, and practicing meditation. While admirable and potentially beneficial, caution is advised.

  • The language being used is often confusing, such as espousing broader terms- i.e., resilience and well-being – but actually hawking weight loss programs, screenings, etc. Or offering ‘mindful’ programs for the purpose of monitoring employee focus, exactly as weight loss is currently monitored and incentivized – there are plenty of mc-mindful programs out there that minimize the real benefit for managers and employees!
  • Some vendors use the term, well-being ‘program.’ Not sure what that means, but the initiatives are often designed within a medical model of health, targeting health risks, disease management, and the use of incentives.
  • Context is often excluded, continuing to shift the burden solely to employees and employee behavior change, instead of addressing all determining factors.

And worse, it may be perceived as “well-washing”: offering a few one-time wellness sessions without addressing critical needs, taking a holistic approach, or considering organizational factors that may block or un-do any potential benefits. Well-washing may actually provide a ‘halo-effect’ – thinking that doing something is better than nothing, and that care for employees is being demonstrated. Another word of caution here – employees aren’t fooled, and well-washing often not only back-fires, but can cause more harm.

Actually, doing nothing may be advisable until there is the intention to dig deeper, uncover issues, and begin to address all factors. The halo effect can’t make up for these factors, fix management issues, or improve the work climate. Take for example stress management initiatives. We recently posted a blog summarizing Jeffrey Pfeffer’s book, Dying for a Paycheck. (blog: 5th Leading Cause of Death). In the book he makes the point that white-collar office jobs have become so stressful that health is impacted. Harvard Business School and Stanford University gathered data from over 200 studies and found that stress at work can be as harmful to employee health as exposure to second hand smoke. Managing stress is critical to well-being; however, data from the American Psychology Association indicates that 75% of U.S. employees believe their supervisors/managers are a major cause of stress at work.

Yet when employee stress is high, well-intentioned companies offer stress management programs, thinking that doing so is better than nothing. However, it may be perceived as ‘well-washing’ and may make the situation worse if the causes are not addressed and employees do not feel heard. Plus, regardless how good the initiative is, the benefits are lost when employees return to a stressful situation. Although these sessions are an easy, quick attempt to help, no matter how well intentioned, cannot enhance well-being or fix the underlying causes of stress.

Context matters. Addressing organizational and other determining factors is a process, takes time, is messy and chaotic, and requires making a far greater commitment than scheduling a one time session. However, the results are transformational – actually, enhancing organizational and employee well-being begins as soon as the process starts. We often say that it’s the process that matters and not just the outcomes.

And it’s not about making employees ‘happy’ and creating a ‘happy’ place to work. This doesn’t benefit anyone – not the employees, nor the business. It’s actually quite the opposite. Dan Arielle often uses an example of mountain climbing to raise the question that if working towards something was only about happiness, why would anyone do something so grueling – often more than once? He jokes that climbing a mountain is full of misery and challenges. Yet it’s the very fight and challenge that is motivating, makes it worth well, and is stimulating.

So it’s not about eliminating hard work, challenges, perseverance, or conflict – bring it on! But ‘bring it on’ in a way that enhances well-being and reduces stress. Here are 5 points to consider,

  • Communicate value and ensure an objective perspective of each employee’s valued contribution.
  • Foster work environments where it’s easy to create meaning.
  • Ensure employee voice; and that their voice is heard.
  • Afford employees the methods to craft their jobs with discretion, autonomy, and mastery.
  • Cultivate camaraderie, connection, and collaboration; instead of competition. This may require revising approaches to performance evaluations.

Two important considerations: do not offer a one time stress management session – or any wellness initiative – without first considering and addressing the climate as well as other organizational factors that may be a concern. And secondly, begin by fostering the desired leadership attributes that cultivate the 5 points, which truly are needed to create organizational well-being. These attributes are actually essential for all employees to be leader-full and are what cultivate well-being and reduce dis-stress.

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