In search of wellbeing authenticity

In the research I carried out among wellbeing leads, there were commonly three types of barriers to change that were mentioned. Ingrained behaviours such as bullying and stigmatisation of stress and mental health which are still widespread, simply a lack of understanding of what wellbeing is and means, and finally, issues around wellbeing authenticity.

Wellbeing authenticity vs wellbeing washing

Wellbeing authenticity has been a growing area of research in recent years. The term is used to describe how aligned organisations’ stated values are with their actual commitment and actions (Gouldner, 1960). The opposite being the term ‘wellbeing washing’, which you might have come across – when organisations appear to care publicly about employee wellbeing but fail to follow up with effective steps internally.

There is a long history underlying this concept of authenticity – a topic for another post – but in a nutshell, it relates to deeper philosophical views about the interests of the organisation and the interests of employees. For a long time it was believed that employee wellbeing and work performance were actually in conflict. Either you prioritised employee wellbeing or work performance but it would always be at the expense of the other. Nowadays, there’s a recognition that you can have a win-win and that investing in employee wellbeing can lead to increased performance.

The key ingredients for building employee trust

The thing is that for this to work, employees must believe that the organisation’s motives are genuine. If they perceive the organisation is sincere in its commitment to employees’ interests, employees are more likely to reciprocate with discretionary effort. In other words, trust is a key ingredient to workplace wellbeing effectiveness and there’s a number of studies already telling us what key factors are involved in building this trust:

High on the list is consistency – authenticity builds over time and past actions inform current expectations. Research during the pandemic showed for example that organisations that suddenly started to introduce wellbeing initiatives could be met with some scepticism from employees.

It’s also about following through on promises and following communications with tangible and ongoing efforts.

Another key factor is mutual support between leaders and staff, and employees feeling involved in the roll-out and communication of wellbeing.

Wellbeing leads’ perspective: a more nuanced take

When I interviewed wellbeing leads for my own research, I was fascinated to discover wellbeing leads’ take on this. When you think about it, wellbeing leads are in an ideal position to see both sides, to understand where the organisation is coming from as well as the point of view of employees. Yes there were absolutely cases where wellbeing washing or ‘yogurt and yoga’ were mentioned. Wellbeing as a PR strategy for attracting talent and enhancing general reputation did come up but far more rarely than I’d thought it would. In fact, wellbeing leads brought a lot of nuance to the idea of organisations being authentic or not in their approach to wellbeing.

Do ‘sticking plaster’ wellbeing policies exist? Absolutely. Does box ticking happen? It does still happen frequently. The interesting perspective wellbeing leads brought is that ‘wellbeing washing’ is often unintentional. Organisations juggling different priorities, tight budgets being a very real challenge at the moment, or simply not realising that what they are doing is wellbeing washing. Most frequently, it’s down to the fact that change takes time and introducing authentic wellbeing is a huge change of culture for many organisations. Something that authenticity research also recognises – organisations at the early stages of a wellbeing strategy are more likely to be viewed as inauthentic. So what’s the best approach for organisations on this journey? In my next post, I’ll share some thoughts on wellbeing interventions and how to prioritise next steps when it comes to wellbeing implementation.

Would you like to hear more and keep in touch?

As part of the work we’re doing at SuperWellness we are looking to create a training course and community of peers that will be truly practical and relevant for wellbeing leads. If this is something you would be interested in, please add your details to our waitlist and we’ll keep you updated.

Read previous posts:

3 common barriers facing wellbeing leads

Shining a much needed spotlight on workplace wellbeing leads



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