Employee health and wellbeing needs to be a core element of any HR strategy and central to the way an organisation operates. This is especially critical given the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on employees' mental health and wellbeing.

The situation

The latest official data shows that 32.5 million working days were lost to work-related ill health in 2019/20, with stress, anxiety and depression accounting for almost 18 million of these. CIPD research shows that COVID-19 has forced employee wellbeing more urgently into focus for many organisations. Businesses take a strategic approach and report that senior leaders take it seriously. However, many people continue to work when unwell, even if they are working from home, while many employees even use holiday or sick leave to work.

The adverse impact of the pandemic on many people’s mental wellbeing means that employers will increasingly need to take effective steps to manage the main risks of stress and mental ill health among their workforces.

CIPD viewpoint

Employers have a fundamental duty of care for the physical and mental health and wellbeing of their workers. However, our research shows that despite more organisations stepping up their efforts, half still don’t have a standalone wellbeing strategy.

A focus on employee health and wellbeing should be a core element of any HR strategy and central to the way an organisation operates. It should not simply consist of one-off initiatives.

As well as benefiting employees, an integrated approach to wellbeing can increase employee engagement, fostering a joint commitment to organisational success.

In line with wider evidence, our research shows that the main risks to employee health are now psychological, with mental ill health and stress being two of the top three causes of long-term absences. Organisations should take a holistic approach and provide good work for people that helps to prevent ill health. We define ‘good work’ as work that is fairly rewarded, providing people with the means to securely make a living; it gives opportunities to develop skills and a career, and ideally provides a sense of fulfilment. Organisations also need to focus on the wider dimensions of wellbeing, including financial wellbeing, which is still a neglected area.

Actions for Government

  • Launch a major, ongoing and well-resourced publicity and education campaign, aligned with the Disability Confident campaign, to advise employers about managing people with a disability or health condition as part of a culture of inclusion.

  • Establish a ‘one-stop-shop’ to make it easier for employers to navigate the many sources of information, advice and guidance already available on workplace health and wellbeing.

  • Ensure that employers conduct risk assessments for work-related stress by providing the Health and Safety Executive with the resources to promote employer compliance with obligations under existing health and safety law.

  • Reform statutory sick pay so that it can support employees to make a more effective and sustainable phased return to work.

  • Allow other allied healthcare professionals to sign fit notes, building on the review of how the fit note operates.

  • Replace the former Fit for Work Service with the national implementation of a preventative and targeted occupational health service to support organisation

Recommendations for employers

  • Ensure that senior leaders are aware of the importance of workplace health and wellbeing, and that they champion the relevant actions to ensure that it’s taken seriously across the organisation.

  • Train line managers and supervisors to manage people well. Line managers are key to employee wellbeing. Good line managers ensure people’s workloads are manageable, provide clear objectives and give constructive feedback. They also offer support and flexibility if their employees have health problems or struggle to manage caring responsibilities.

  • Provide early access to occupational health support and other specialist sources of help, such as counselling.

  • Develop an evidence-based understanding of the causes of absence and unhealthy practices, such as ‘presenteeism’ and ‘leaveism’. Unless the underlying issues prompting people’s behaviours are addressed, efforts to support employees and improve health and wellbeing will be short-lived.

  • Tailor policies and practices to organisational and employee needs. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to designing an effective employee wellbeing strategy – its content should be based on the organisation’s unique needs and characteristics, and of course those of its employees.

  • Build a more robust organisational framework to promote good mental wellbeing and foster a culture where people can talk about mental health and seek help where needed.

  • Carry out a risk assessment or audit on work-related stress across the workforce, as part of a preventive approach.

CIPD resources and references

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