How Many Downward Facing Dogs Does it Take to Fix a Toxic Work Culture?

management policy Jun 05, 2023

By Shanna B. Tiayon


How many downward facing dogs does it take to fix a toxic work culture?

How many liters of water does an employee have to drink to increase psychological safety in their department?

How many steps must an employee walk to be recognized for their contributions?

When you read these questions they sound silly, right? But no more silly than what’s common practice in many organizations – wellness washing.

I recently learned the term “wellness washing” – the promotion of corporate wellness activities like yoga, water challenges and mental health classes without organizational investment in addressing workplace factors that lead to poor employee mental (and sometimes physical) health. The term articulates perfectly the contradiction of corporate wellness programs that place the onus for change and improvement exclusively on employees, without corporate level introspection and commitment to address key structural issues. Structural issues are the policies, systems and behaviors embedded in the organization; the things that run on autopilot and often go unnoticed or uncontested.

Now don’t get me wrong, yoga, meditation, breathwork, etc. are all wonderful lifestyle enhancers and coping mechanisms for employees who find themselves in a challenging work environment, we even offer a few such trainings in our training catalog at Yes Wellbeing Works. However, the real investment of organizations should be in improving the workplace not coping!  

Employees who work full time spend on average 2,080 hours at work each year, thus employers have a tremendous opportunity to have a positive impact on employees’ experiences, mental health and professional opportunities. A recent study by UKG echoed this, finding that 60% of employees surveyed said their job was the biggest factor influencing their overall mental health. With this level of responsibility employers should be focused on real, meaningful and sustainable change that positively impacts the employee experience.

The levers for change where organizations can have the most impact isn’t distributing Fitbits, but instead addressing structural issues that have an adverse impact on employees in general or specific employee demographic groups. We define this work as focused on employee wellbeing.

While rolling up your sleeves to do the hard work of addressing organizational challenges isn’t as sexy or neatly packaged as a standup desk, gym membership or branded water bottle distribution, it is more effective in encouraging the key employee outcomes that corporate wellness programs purport to offer: engagement, retention, creativity & innovation, improved group dynamics and more. For organizations that are well resourced in time and money, this doesn’t have to be an either or choice, you can do both corporate wellness and employee wellbeing. But, to only focus on wellness and omit wellbeing can actually do more harm than good. So if you’re not sure if your organization is practicing wellness washing, below are a few illustrative clues:

Does your organization have a corporate wellness program, but:

  • No management training program or training opportunities for managers to build skills to effectively manage employees?
  • A history of employing unicorn employees who demonstrate poor interpersonal behaviors but are rewarded because of their perceived benefit to the company, despite the harm they cause others?
  • Hasn’t done a compensation review in more than 3-years?
  • High stress and burnout is the norm, with little to no internal effort to address the root causes of the burnout?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, you may have a wellness washing issue, but it’s never too late to make a different decision. Here’s how:

  • Review internal data (e.g. annual employee surveys, turnover data, exit interview data) to understand the pattern in structural issues that need to be addressed.
  • Review your budgets and bandwidth to understand the financial and time resources you have to invest in addressing identified issues.
  • Start with the structural issue that is currently causing the most pain for your employees. Clearly define the issue, analyze how the issue emerged and outline what clearly needs to be done to make a positive shift.
  • Acknowledge to employees, through a formal communication, that while you currently have a robust wellness offering you recognize the need to do deeper work to better support them and share the tentative plan going forward.

In this current labor market where talent is scarce and turnover is high, investing organizational resources in the right things is paramount to the attraction and retention of a robust and engaged workforce. Wellness washing is likely moving you further away from this goal, not closer.



*If you’re interested in developing your own employee wellbeing strategy, check out our Employee Wellbeing Strategy Quickstart Guide.


**Interested in more content, tips and strategies to support employee wellbeing in your organization? Join our email list. We provide real, relevant and actionable content to create better workplaces! 


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