With only half of organisations having employee wellbeing on senior leaders’ agendas, 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 during a global health emergency, where many employees find themselves working remotely, isolated from friends, family and colleagues for long periods of time, and anxious about their health and wellbeing. 

The situation

The latest official data shows that almost 27 million working days were lost to work-related ill health in 2017/18, with 1.4 million people suffering from a work-related illness. CIPD research shows that the average level of employee absence is 5.9 days per employee per year. Although this figure has been falling over the last decade, it does, however, mask the fact that most people continue to work when unwell, while many employees even use holiday or sick leave to work.

The UK’s ageing workforce also means that employers will increasingly need to ensure they are taking a more strategic approach to supporting the health and wellbeing of their employees.

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 only around half of organisations have employee wellbeing on their senior leaders’ agendas.

A focus on employee health and wellbeing should be a core element of any HR strategy, and central to the way an organisation operates and fulfils its mission. 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 the top two causes of long-term absences. Yet an ageing workforce means implications such as age-related disabilities and long-term health conditions must also be weighed and managed if workplace health and wellbeing is to be holistically addressed.

Actions for Government

  • Launch a major, ongoing and well-resourced publicity and education campaign, aligned with the Disability Confident campaign, to encourage a culture of inclusion among employers.

  • 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.

  • Redesign 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 Fit for Work Service with the national implementation of a preventative and targeted occupational health service to support organisations with return-to-work programmes, particularly SMEs.

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 constructive feedback. They also provide support and flexibility if their employees have health problems or struggle to manage caring responsibilities.

  • Provide early access to occupational health support.

  • 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 health.

  • Carry out a risk assessment or audit on work-related stress across the workforce. This is a statutory duty but should also be seen by employers as a preventive measure.

CIPD resources and references

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