How to ensure a mental wellbeing strategy delivers on its promises

  • Employers need to recognise that mental health support is a shared responsibility which needs to be a genuine priority, underpinned by a clear strategy that both understands and addresses causes and contributors.
  • Tangible benefits, services, policies and practices that support employees are essential to ensure that mental wellbeing is part of an organisation’s culture.
  • A robust communications plan is essential alongside any mental health support and benefits to achieve maximum engagement.

The latest corporate term circulating through workplaces is wellbeing washing; when organisations publicly advocate for employee wellbeing and good mental health support, often on social media platforms around awareness days, but do not back it up with tangible benefits for their workforce. But how did this practice originate?

Reasoning behind it

Some organisations dipping into the trend, whether intentionally or not, could believe that just speaking about the importance of wellbeing will create a culture of it, not always realising that a clear strategy and investment in benefits is vital. Tangible benefits, policies and practices that support employees are essential to ensure that a wellbeing culture is established.

Sign up to our newsletters

Receive news and guidance on a range of HR issues direct to your inbox

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

The term wellbeing washing has emerged because employers recognise how valuable wellbeing is to the perception of their organisation and to potential recruits, so they are driven to communicate that they have such a culture, says Paula Allen, global leader, research and total wellbeing and senior vice-president at Telus Health.

“The problem is that if they do not understand or do not do what is actually needed, they can be accused of pretending, and have the term wellbeing washing used to describe their communication,” she says. “Businesses should be aware that their image could come under fire if they are not aligned in what they say and do. There is a risk that it erodes credibility, but more importantly, it means that the focus is on communicating externally versus acting internally, so they will not actually see the benefit in their organisation.”

Various organisations are stretched to capacity in terms of budget and time, so providing mental health support on top of what they may deem to be more essential could be a step too far.

However, employers often already have benefits in place that can help with this: private medical insurance, health cash plans, and group life and group income protection often have some added-value services existing alongside these, says Debra Clark, head of specialist consulting for Towergate Health and Protection. “Many of these support the mental health of employees but employers are often not fully aware of their existence,” she says. “These must be brought to the fore as they can be as life changing in the support they provide as the core insurances themselves.”

Tangible benefits

It is more vital than ever that employers provide their workforce with the correct services and resources. Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) are a useful place to start, intended to help employees deal with issues that might adversely impact their health, wellbeing or work performance.

EAPs generally include counselling and consultation services for employees and their immediate family, and also manager training, explains Allen.

“This helps leaders cultivate a healthy environment, as well as how and when to step in when an employee is showing signs of strain,” she says. “Both are important to the functioning of a team and acquiring the skills through training prevents undue stress on managers who want to be helpful, but have no education in this area.”

Furthermore, health risk assessments and questionnaires on emotional wellbeing and mental health are useful tools for both the employee and the employer, enabling them to create an informed plan with the data about areas on which to focus awareness and support.

It is vital to include a robust communications plan alongside any mental health support and benefits, so employers know where to signpost staff to achieve maximum engagement.

Employers should assess how employees want to receive support communications; updates sent through laptops, mobiles and tablets is one obvious answer for modern workplaces. Employers will need multiple touchpoints to communicate offerings to ensure they meet the diverse needs of a workforce, which could also include more traditional touchpoints like formal talks, booklets or posters.

A full suite of robust services is essential to ensure everyone is protected, says Gosia Bowling, national lead for mental health at Nuffield Health. Utilising corporate health and wellbeing specialists to understand different demographics can help to create a strategy that meets the needs of every employee.

“Employers might provide convenient online or telephone access to GPs to save employees time, while financial help like childcare vouchers in addition to flexible working could also support those raising children,” she says.

“Employee benefits propositions should include services that give employees access to specialists with whom they can discuss their difficulties and learn positive coping mechanisms. Rather than employers providing generic services, they can use digital platforms to further promote and support health awareness. These allow staff to access relevant help and seek more personalised interventions.”

Investing in manager development programmes on how to support mental health and having conversations can enable them to make a positive difference and empower employees.

Employees in senior leadership positions must be trained to actively listen and maintain regular contact with employees, says Arjan Toor, chief executive officer at Cigna Healthcare Europe. “Other tangible action that employers can take to support their employees and decrease mental health and wellbeing problems include being aware of the signs of extreme stress and burnout to allow for preventative action, and encouraging employees to create healthy workplace habits and behaviours to maintain and improve their overall health and wellbeing,” he says.

Delivering wellbeing promises

According to Kooth Work’s February 2023 report Missing the mark: why staff are rejecting your help (and what they really want), 40% of employees were unaware of available wellbeing support and 42% stated that they are under-served by the options. This suggests that employers are paying for support that staff do not know exists or find useful.

If employers are not offering relevant support, or even communicating what they offer, it could mean that they do not know what the best option is or where to start. Ensuring the workplace is an open and honest community, and that employees feel comfortable enough to ask for help is an ideal first step to deliver on their promises. Once this is established, policies should be put in place.

Flexibility, psychological safety, being valued and the experience of belonging are all drivers of mental wellbeing, says Allen. “Mental health is an everyday issue, a critical one for both quality of life and productive workplaces, and one well within our ability to improve.”

Employers need to recognise that mental wellbeing is a shared responsibility which needs to be a genuine priority, underpinned by a clear strategy that both understands and addresses causes and contributors.

Most employers recognise that one-off interventions during mental health awareness days do not work, and that initiatives should focus on prevention, with defined goals that track and monitor progress to measure impact, says Bowling.

“Offering a range of complementary interventions and support across the workforce consistently drives home the message a dialogue about mental health is both expected and welcomed by the employer,” she says. “In addition, all initiatives should have the inherent message that everyone has mental health needs, and as these vary over time, different types of support will be required. What is offered should echo this message.”

While cultivating an open and honest environment in the workplace is a useful starting point, employers should be looking to ensure suitable and sustainable services are in place in order to support those who are struggling and to effectively deliver on their promises of assistance.