As sickness absence rises, firms indulge in ‘wellbeing washing’

A new survey claims to reveals a potential gap between perception and reality when it comes to wellbeing initiatives, which the report labels 'wellbeing washing'A new survey commissioned by law firm Winckworth Sherwood suggests there has been a shift in workplace culture, with a majority of both employers (86 percent) and employees (69 percent) agreeing it’s more acceptable to take time off for illness, especially mental health issues. However, the survey also reveals a potential gap between perception and reality, which the report labels ‘wellbeing washing’. While employers say improved productivity is the main reason they offer wellness programs, some employees may be sceptical. The survey claims that only half of employers actually offer practices considered most effective for mental health, such as fair pay (51 percent), flexible work options (49 percent), and what the study calls “good work” (55 percent), which likely refers to manageable workloads and positive work environments.

The survey also claims to highlight a shared belief among both employers (86 percent) and employees (91 percent) that the onus shouldn’t be solely on workers to manage their own well-being. Instead, they agree that employers need to take responsibility for improving the work environment and culture itself.

As well as examining attitudes towards sickness absence, the report, ‘Wellbeing Strategies: Effective in Managing Sickness Absence? Insights and Recommendations for Employers’, also looks at the effectiveness of existing strategies and initiatives in promoting mental health and reducing sickness absence due to mental ill-health, and whether more could be done in view of the high levels of sickness absence in the UK.

A majority (84 percent) of employers surveyed believe their wellbeing strategy, initiatives or benefits have reduced levels of sickness absence. Although on the face of it this statistic is positive, when employers were asked why such benefits and initiatives were being offered within their organisation, employers surveyed admitted the main purpose was not to reduce sickness absence, but to improve productivity.

What’s more, the report highlights that employers (68 percent) and employees (67 percent) surveyed agree there is too much responsibility on employees to improve their health and wellbeing, as opposed to organisations improving their work environment and culture. Only 9 percent of employees and 14 percent of employers surveyed disagreed with this.

Employers and employees surveyed were predominantly aligned on the most effective factors in promoting mental health and preventing sickness absence for mental ill-health: “Good work” (autonomy, job satisfaction, work-life balance); fair pay and reward; and promotion of flexible working (e.g. remote working, condensed hours).

However, these results highlight yet another gap between employers’ beliefs and actions, with only around a half of employers surveyed admitting that they offered their employees fair pay and reward, “good work” and promoted flexible working.

Combined, these findings are clear indicators that “wellbeing washing” is occurring within organisations with employers publicly embracing the importance of wellbeing and implementation of wellbeing initiatives, while not genuinely supporting employees and ensuring a healthy working environment.

With the CIPD and ONS reporting the highest sickness absence rate in a decade, the report highlighted that employers could be even more effective in genuinely promoting wellbeing in the workplace and reducing sickness absence levels, if employers did not just offer sticking plasters such as free fruit and yoga classes, and instead looked at cultural change.