Text Divider

With the pandemic said to have pressed pause on inhuman working demands, impossible commutes and in-office stress, is the situation likely to improve as we ease back to the workplace? Is the illusion of management-sponsored wellbeing care a clever ploy to shift responsibility back onto the employee? How do you spot a smart PR stunt from a genuine wellbeing policy and what core beliefs should govern a bona fide roadmap for change?

Craig Fearn takes a measured look at the smoke and mirror tactics of wellbeing culture, why it’s designed to fail and why genuine investment in humans is the only option.

Brushing over the cracks

As a business wellbeing consultant, in recent times I’ve seen a rising sense of urgency in firms eager to improve the mental health of their staff. It would be easy to imagine that this is because the effects of burnout, stress and pressure have been made all the more transparent but I believe that there are other factors at play:

Of course, bringing benevolence and fun into the workplace is nothing new. Firm-sponsored Friday afternoon bakery runs, match-day TV and beers in the breakout room, and Nerf gun racks on the office wall are old news. As are bring your pet to work days.

However, the way in which the pandemic and the resultant lockdown have questioned the stalwarts of company culture and the flood of psychological existential and physical stress that has come along with it, have exacerbated panic amongst some employers. The increasingly loud call for management accountability in worker wellbeing has been amplified by circumstances beyond anyone’s control.

But there is one thing that alarms me. Just as so-called greenwashing seeks to jump on a feel-good enviro-friendly bandwagon whilst proving false to core tenets of green principles, so wellwashing places a superficial film over deeper toxicity within well-established workplace culture.

Companies are making sure their wellbeing programs are well documented but what of their motives and methodologies? Let’s take a closer look.

Sticking plaster mentality

A case in point is Amazon’s recent introduction of its WorkingWell[2] policy. The ever-expanding program has seen substantial investment from the company as part of its $300 million mission to become Earth’s Safest Place to Work. What does the initiative include? Wellness Zones are purposed to promote strength and flexibility in order to combat repetitive stress injuries; huddles disseminate recorded content on safe ways to move and handle goods; whilst AmaZen pods offer workers a moment of calm and positive affirmations through peaceful videos and gentle sounds in a tiny kiosk with a chair.

What’s the issue here?

The issue is the culture that has brought about the humanly intolerable environment in the first place. A report published in 2020[3] looked into the effect of Amazon’s overbearing surveillance policies and time pressures on staff. Drivers have complained about having to urinate in bottles[4] because of impossible delivery schedules and stressed warehouse staff have come together to protest about breaks so short they’re unable to visit the restroom (and bear in mind, they’re being watched and even heat-traced in places to make sure they’re where they should be). Surely it’s laughable to have a comfort booth in a workplace where even very basic human needs aren’t being met.

The culture is not restricted to one giant. It’s endemic.

Insurance behemoth Aetna has made similar moves to paste over the cracks[5] in workforce wellbeing. Fueled by its chief executive’s own brush with health issues, a supposed focus on the individual has involved raising wages, enhancing the staff medical plan and inevitably, mindfulness programs. All the while early retirements and lay-offs have arguably eroded both the labor pool and human wellbeing.

Weaponizing and wellwashing

On the surface, it looks like a win-win situation for the company and the employee, especially when shiny staff perks look great on the website or within the folds of the business press. But whilst discrimination, overwork, harassment, poor work culture and the precariosity of possibly being cut loose with a moment’s notice exist, burnout, anxiety, unhappiness and lack of purpose will prevail, no matter how often your team goes tree bathing.

It’s a perverse situation where those who make the mess expect praise when they make a pretense of clearing it up but ultimately, it’s individual humans who find themselves neck-deep in

the dirt.

Notably, a study[6] found that 88% of companies in the US are investing more in mental health post-pandemic with over 80% of those questioned spending more on stress-management and resilience. Mindfulness and meditation programs are also unsurprisingly popular with more than half the companies investing in them.

Clearly, funds are being committed to the cause but if it’s not going into the right places for the right reasons – and employers aren’t being held accountable for its efficacy, then is it any more than a PR drive?

Wellwashing bingo

My take on the popular boardroom game will give you an idea of how well your firm is doing. A solid and honest wellbeing policy should have the following elements, if it doesn’t, mark your card. Take the line or the house and you know that your firm has much work to do.

It should be:

There will be no change without change

I am hopeful that however wide-reaching the scope of required change is, we can rise to meet the challenge but we must be brave – and honest.

It will involve a radical rethink of the way we see the workforce. Instead of a resource to be wrung dry to meet budgets or targets and kept on-task with temporary fixes, we must see the human needs at the heart of our talent base. The normalization of a toxic work environment has to cease along with the punishment of those who fall ill as a result of its foul practices. And not because it makes fiscal sense (even though this might be an unintended benefit) but because it’s the right thing to do and it’s the honest end of the wellbeing promise. Anything else is cunning, disreputable and despicable.

Schemes that compel people to better manage the unfair stress and conditions in which they are forced to work rather than making a radical change are at the root of much misery and even mortality. What disgusts me most of all is when firms come up with PR pretty policies to present themselves as a company that cares about their workers, while not doing many of the things that could actually put the situation right on a human level.

[1] United Nations News, 2019, Stress, overtime, disease contribute to 2.8 million workers’ deaths per year, reports UN labour agency, accessed 25/08/21 [https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/04/1036851]

[2] Business Wire, 2021, From Body Mechanics to Mindfulness, Amazon Launches Employee-Designed Health and Safety Program called Working Well Across U.S. Operations, accessed 25/08/21, [https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20210517005300/en/From-Body-Mechanics-to-Mindfulness-Amazon-Launches-Employee-Designed-Health-and-Safety-Program-called-WorkingWell-Across-U.S.-Operations]

[3] Open Markets, 2020, Eyes everywhere: Amazon’s surveillance infrastructure and revitalizing worker power, accessed 25/08/21, [https://www.openmarketsinstitute.org/publications/eyes-everywhere-amazons-surveillance-infrastructure-and-revitalizing-worker-power]

[4] Motherboard, Matthew Gault, 2021, Amazon introduces tiny ‘ZenBooths’ for stressed out warehouse workers, accessed 25/08/21, [https://www.vice.com/en/article/wx5nmw/amazon-introduces-tiny-zenbooths-for-stressed-out-warehouse-workers]

[5] Financial Times, Pilita Clark, Corporate wellbeing is no substitute for good management, accessed 25/08/21, [https://www.ft.com/content/7ef4e4ba-432e-11e8-803a-295c97e6fd0b]

[6] BBC, Kate Morgan, 2021, Can companies actually help workers stay happy and healthy?, accessed 25/08/21 [https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20210319-can-companies-actually-help-workers-stay-happy-and-healthy]