Workplace well-washing is a relatively new term and as such lacks an agreed definition. Here at WellWise, we define it as the intentional or unintentional practice of promoting a wellbeing culture or intervention that has little or no positive impact on wellbeing outcomes.
In some instances, it may stem from a genuine desire from the organizations to “do something” to support the improved wellbeing of their employees. For others, well-washing may be a more deliberate tactic that aims to improve corporate reputation or enhance employer branding with the least effort or investment.
Regardless of its origin, well-washing is characterized by a lack of strategy, engagement, or measurement. It is often the result of assumptions and knee-jerk reactions as opposed to a careful consideration of reliable data. Well-washing tends to take the form of a series of sporadic, ‘copy-cat’, and superficial activities aimed at encouraging individuals to take better care of themselves. Our colleagues at Hinsta Performance call this the ‘sin of shifting responsibility’ – placing excessive emphasis on the individual’s responsibility whilst downplaying organizational responsibility.
It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that doing something is better than doing nothing when it comes to workplace wellbeing. Enthusiasm to improve employee wellbeing may be high, and there is increasing pressure for organizations to act in this space. However, well-washing has the potential to be very damaging and as such presents a risk to the very benefits workplace wellbeing seeks to achieve.
This is because well-washing can inadvertently decrease the wellbeing of employees. An example of this is workplace weight loss or smoking cessation programmes. If offered independently of a broader strategic approach, these programmes could have unintended consequences in the form of unhealthy competitive behaviour or discrimination against employees who either fail or do not try to achieve the intended results. This is not only damaging to individuals but impacts on staff morale, team cohesion and workplace culture more broadly.
In addition, while an ill-thought through and unsustained commitment may well temporarily result in improved employee engagement or satisfaction, this is likely to be quickly followed by a decline in employee engagement and a rapid increase in staff turnover as employees feel they are working for an organization who places higher value on perceptions rather than real impact. The costs of this would far outweigh the benefits that were gained from the initial uplift.
Gathering & analysing the right data and addressing organizational factors that negatively impact wellbeing takes more time, commitment and initial investment than organizing a series of adhoc ‘wellbeing’ activities. Therefore, if resources are tight, it is better to identify just one thing that will make a difference and slowly build from there, rather than rushing into a series of activities that are unsustainable, ineffective, and thus a wasteful drain on finances.
As the workplace wellbeing field matures, organizations such as SAP are proving just how transformational an authentic, carefully considered approach to workplace wellbeing can be. It is worth investing in an effective strategy. SAP’s data-based, slow and steady approach over a decade means that it can draw direct links between improvements in wellbeing (measured through a wellbeing index) to improvements in the bottom line. SAP can now confidently demonstrate that each 1% change in its wellbeing index delivers a $90-$100 Million (EU) impact on operating profit. SAP’s approach is clearly also having a positive effect on employee engagement, with the organisation consistently featured on lists such as the Great Place to Work and Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For.
Organizations who commit to a strategic approach will outperform those who take a well-washing approach on nearly every metric that matters. The key lies in remembering that workplace wellbeing is a marathon, not a race and there are no silver-bullets.
 Nora Rosendahl to Hinsta, 2021, https://www.hintsa.com/7-sins-of-wellbeing-washing/.
 Karen M Powroznik, “Healthism and Weight-Based Discrimination: The Unintended Consequences of Health Promotion in the Workplace,” Work and Occupations 44, no. 2 (2017).
 Jim Purcell, “Case Study: Sap Shows How Employee Well-Being Boosts the Bottom Line,” Forbes Magazine, https://www.forbes.com/sites/jimpurcell/2019/10/28/case-study-sap-shows-how-employee-wellbeing-boosts-the-bottom-line/?sh=5897a2c932a4.