In the wake of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the landscape of employee wellbeing has undergone significant shifts. The latest research by the CIPD’s annual survey exploring health, wellbeing and absence in the UK workplaces paints a concerning picture, revealing that employee sickness absence has reached its highest level in over a decade. The CIPD survey in partnership with Simplehealth shows evidence of most organisations increasing their focus on health and wellbeing and doing their best to support people in a holistic way. Many are investing considerable resources in employee wellbeing but are not fully realising the benefits.
One of the most striking findings of the research is the surge in employee sickness absence rates. The average rate of absence now stands at 7.8 days per employee, representing 3.4% of working time lost each year. This marks a considerable increase from the pre-pandemic levels of 5.8 days per employee in 2019. Moreover, the public sector continues to grapple with higher absence rates, averaging 10.6 days per employee, while private sector services record lower levels at 5.8 days. However, it’s essential to note that this upward trend in absence levels is a challenge observed across all sectors.
Mental Health and Stress in the Workplace
Mental ill-health and musculoskeletal injuries remain persistent factors contributing to short-term and long-term absence. While minor illnesses top the list for short-term absence, long-term absence is primarily attributed to mental ill-health, musculoskeletal injuries, acute medical conditions, and stress. Notably, COVID-19 continues to exert its influence on sickness absence, emerging as the fourth leading cause of short-term absence. Shockingly, 50% of organisations report that some employees are grappling with long COVID, emphasising the pandemic’s enduring impact on the workforce.
In the realm of employee wellbeing, mental health remains the predominant concern. Organisations are increasingly adopting diverse approaches to support mental health, such as employee assistant programs, mental health first aid training, wellbeing champions, counselling services, and promoting flexible work arrangements. Stress-related absence affects a staggering 76% of respondents, with heavy workloads and management styles often identified as the culprits. Public sector workers are particularly vulnerable to workplace-induced stress, feeling exhausted and under extensive pressure. Despite this, many employees do not discuss their health issues with their employer, except in cases of injury due to work-related accidents, COVID-19, or heart problems. Fortunately, 78% of organisations are actively seeking to identify and reduce stress, with staff surveys and focus groups being the preferred methods for identifying stressors.
Rising Employee Concern
Employees’ perceptions of their health and wellbeing in the workplace are largely positive. Over half report good or very good mental and physical health. However, the impact of work on mental health is a concern, with over a quarter of employees reporting negative effects.
Despite the pandemic’s remote work adoption, presenteeism remains rampant, with 87% of respondents witnessing it in their organisations. Leavism, a concerning phenomenon where employees work outside their contracted hours or use holiday for work, is also prevalent, observed by 63% of respondents. Efforts to combat these issues are underway, with 41% taking measures to discourage presenteeism and 35% working to reduce Leavism. However, these numbers underscore the need for comprehensive solutions.
Initiatives and Wellbeing Strategies
Line managers pay a pivotal role in employee wellbeing, with 70% taking primary responsibility for managing short-term absence and 61% for long-term absence. Unfortunately, a significant challenge persists in the form of insufficient line manager skills and confidence, contributing to stress-related absence. To address this issue, 68% of organisations offer tailored support for line managers, and 59% provide training in absence-handling. Nevertheless, mental health first aiders are more likely to receive training than managers, highlighting a potential gap.
Research also shows that over half (53%) of organisations now have stand-alone wellbeing strategies. Senior leaders are increasingly prioritising employee wellbeing, with 69% reporting it as part of their agenda. Additionally , 43% of organisations continue to support employee mental health and wellbeing in respond to the ongoing pandemic. Mental health remains the primary focus of wellbeing strategies, but financial wellbeing is gaining traction, with 57% of organisations incorporating it into their initiatives.
In addition, organisations are making strides towards inclusivity in wellbeing programs. Nearly half (46%) now include provisions for menopause transition, a significant increase from 30% the previous year. Provision for pregnancy loss has also seen improvement, rising form 26% to 37% in 2023. However, support issues like chronic health conditions, suicide prevention, and menstrual health varies, with room for expansion in policy provisions.
Supporting Your Organisation
Evaluating the impact of health and wellbeing activities is crucial for improvement. The latest research on employee wellbeing paints a complex picture influenced by the ongoing pandemic, highlighting the urgency for organisations to address the rising rates of absence, mental health challenges, and persistence of presenteeism and leavism.
To navigate these challenges effectively, organisations must prioritise the mental and physical health of their workforce, provide comprehensive support for line managers, and continue to evaluate the impact of their wellbeing initiatives. In doing so, they can foster a healthier and more inclusive workplace culture, ultimately leading to better employee morale, engagement, and work-life balance.
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