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Work In Progress

Psychwashing: When Employers Use "Well-Being" To Hide Workplace Business As Usual

Corporations are racing to adopt the language of the mental health movement. But is this anything more than a veil to cover up the deeper problems within the modern workplace?

Photograph of a group of people doing yoga, sitting cross-legged

A group of people practice yoga at the 2018 Midwest Yoga and Oneness Festival.

Erik Brolin/Unsplash
Kasia Bielecka

WARSAW — Raises? Shorter working hours? Jobs that carry real meaning? Does anyone really need these things anymore? Nope, if you ask corporations, they would rather have their employees learn deep breathing or sign up for courses on how to effectively manage stress. Therapy and wellness culture has entered companies, but in a caricatured form.

Not so long ago, topics such as productivity and efficiency were all the rage in workplaces. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, and it forced a reorganization of corporate priorities. All of a sudden, companies began to claim that they care about the mental health, well-being, and stress levels of their employees. But considering that what businesses still treasure most is their own bottom line, has this shift in language really changed anything?

“Mental health is now a corporate topic”, said professor Tomasz Ochinowski, a psychologist and organizational historian from the Department of Social Management at the University of Warsaw. “The pandemic and the war in Ukraine have definitely played a major role here”, he added, “but in a lot of ways, this is also a generational change”.

Psychwashing, or overusing therapy-speak

Although workplaces have long used concepts from psychology, it is only now that this practice is drawing a critical eye. Much of the credit for this goes to younger members of the workforce, who have begun to ask whether incorporating mental health conversations in the workplace is truly meant to address their well-being, or whether sessions with therapists, motivational workshops, and free courses on improving wellbeing are just a facade meant to mask deeper workplace problems.

Is all the talk championing employee well-being merely psychwashing, where the employer pretends to care about its workers for its own gain? This question is becoming increasingly loud, even though the term “psychwashing” itself has neither a proper definition nor scientific research behind it.

“Boundary training” for sexists

“I used to work at a company with 'Western-style' management”, said Anita, who spoke with Wyborcza about her first job at a big corporation. “They spoke a lot about the well-being of employees, about the work environment, and about work-life balance, but in spite of this, I was incredibly overworked and stressed”.

Maybe it was them who needed to change their behavior.

The young, ambitious lawyer wanted to make a good impression with her bosses. She eagerly took on work overtime, signed up for difficult projects, and was quickly assigned tasks meant for more senior employees. But rather than rise up the ranks, she often found herself at the receiving end of sexist commentary from her superiors.

“When I confided in my manager, she told me that I needed to learn how to assertively respond to such comments”, Anita said. “I stood my ground and said that maybe it was them who needed to change their behavior."

As a follow-up, her manager organized a meeting with a psychologist about dealing with difficulties in the workplace, including a role-play session with the title “what to do when someone crosses your boundaries”.

It was at this point that Anita felt, for the first time, that something wasn’t quite right here. Her immediate problem solved itself when the senior colleague who was harassing her quit. But that moment of relative peace did not last long as she slipped into depression. The episode would put to test her employer's true attitude towards her mental health.

In what she still believed to be an open, trusting environment, Anita decided to let her boss know that she felt overworked, stressed, and exhausted. She requested for shorter working hours and assignments that were closer to her job description. Her boss refused.

Photograph of a desk with a silver apple computer on it, which reads "Do More" on the screen.

A silver apple computer that reads "Do More" on the screen.

Carl Heyerdahl/Unsplash

Burnout training for overworked employees

Andrzej's workplace has a few ground rules. First and foremost: employees should ask for help when they are having a bad mental health day. Second: employees should be aware of their coworkers’ emotions and work together to support them. And third, employees should try their best to effectively manage their own emotions.

What does that enigmatically worded third rule really mean? “The idea is to properly ‘manage stress’, work on ‘effectiveness of focus’ and skillfully ‘regulate emotions’”, said Andrzej, putting the corporate jargon in air quotes.

He has been working at this mid-sized marketing company for a year — and likes his job. But he has one fundamental problem with his work: he sees no purpose in it. “All day every day we discuss strategies that are only meant to sell people yet another product that they don’t need”, he said. “Then we talk about this at meetings, and the next phase is to write a report on it. That’s roughly what my work looks like”.

Going along with the company guidelines, Andrzej spoke openly about his reluctance to work and his growing frustration with his job during a training session that was specifically devoted to employees’ mental health and well-being. His co-workers seemed genuinely worried about him, as was his team manager, who had been the one to propose such open workshops in order to prevent burnout. Andrzej was also given the opportunity to consult a psychologist.

When I asked Andzej if the workshops or his meetings with the psychologist worked for him, he said that both were fine. “We wrote out strategies for spotting the early signs of burnout and talked about how to counteract them. We also spoke about what we could do in order to break the monotony of work”, he said. However, he did not seem fully convinced about the effectiveness of these interventions. His difficulties at work did not come down only to repetitive tasks and the lack of new challenges, but to the absence of the feeling of being socially useful.

“My job is simply useless”, he said. “No workshop can change this".

Stressed that you’ll be fired? Take a deep breath

Małgorzata has twelve years of work experience. She has worked for five different companies, changing positions, teams and even industries. During the pandemic, her industry entered a crisis, and the interest rates on loans she was paying off increased. "I was overcome by a feeling of fear and terrible helplessness”, she said. That's when her difficulties at work began.

“I was incredibly worried that they would fire me”, she said, “I was organizing events for work, which obviously stopped happening during the pandemic”. “They transferred me to another department, where I tried very hard and even worked overtime without pay”, she added. “Anything, to just keep my job”.

I was so stressed and overworked, I was worried about being fired — and here's someone telling me to breathe

Her manager kept repeating that no one apart from the people who had been let go at the very beginning of the pandemic would lose their job. The company offered periodic workshops on mindfulness in order to help employees cope with the impacts of the pandemic. They were meant to teach them to "enjoy the present" and protect their peace of mind.

“I want to laugh when I think about it now”, Małgorzata said, visibly irritated when reminded of her experience. “I was so stressed and overworked, I was worried about my parents’ health, whether I would be able to pay my loan, what I would do if I was let go at work — and here’s someone instructing me how I should be breathing to be less stressed”.

In spite of her manager’s many promises, the company ended up letting Małgorzata go. However, they did let her know that she could continue to attend the online mindfulness classes.

Photograph of a group of people dressed in office clothing dancing in line.

A team dances as a form of therapy and corporate wellbeing.

Institute of Counselling

Corporate appropriation

“Psychwashing” isn't the first phenomenon capturing how corporations capitalize on social values and issues popular in the public discourse. “Greenwashing” showed how companies feigned being eco-friendly, and "pinkwashing" showed how they profited off a show of support for the LGBTQ+ community.

Though it might not seem as neat an idea, psychwashing works on the same basis. Corporations are great at hijacking topics resonating among the public — in this case, mental health — and then marketing them as core values. This does not mean that they actually care about these values or even implement them when it comes to their own employees.

“The present focus on mental health and mental illness at a narrative level is a way for companies to escape their other problems”, said Professor Ochinowski. "It’s easier to talk about mental illness than about overwork, layoffs, or the impacts of online work”.

A common counterargument to this criticism is that companies are not philanthropies, and that their only goal in a capitalist economy is to make profit. It is logical and natural that they would optimise their internal policies and external communications to maximise profit. But equally logical is the fact that companies should hold true to the values that they broadcast to the world — and to their own employees.

What’s more, having happy, healthy employees is good for business. After all, no one is putting in their best work while they are under chronic stress or depression, or struggling with the feeling that their job is meaningless.

Therapy culture

Psychwashing cannot be isolated from other contemporary phenomena. One of them is the so-called “therapy culture” and its built-in assumption that self-improvement and therapy are the key to solving all social problems.

The belief that we can solve existential problems at work is false and dangerous

“On the one hand, ‘therapy culture’ raises awareness about the existence of mental problems as an important challenge at work and in life”, Professor Ochinowski said, “But it also lays the groundwork for ‘pop psychology’ — or using extremely simplified psychological language to talk about all kinds of problems”. According to him, this “includes problems that require systemic solutions”, rather than individual ones.

In the workplace, this leads to the widespread “belief that we can solve existential problems at work”, he said. “In my opinion, this is not only false, but also dangerous”.

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