Sickness absence has reached a 10 year high in the UK: employees took an average of 7.8 days of sick leave in the last year — and that’s an increase of two whole days over pre-pandemic levels.
What’s happening? The research authors (the CIPD with Simplyhealth, who looked at data from 6.5 million employees at 918 UK organisations), say there’s still a hangover from Covid-19, and maybe also a related change in attitudes to the need for taking sick leave.
But most of all there’s a problem with workplace stress. 76% of employees suggested it was the main factor: stress, they said, that had been caused primarily by ‘heavy workloads’ and ‘management style’.
The impact of stress
The research authors argue that organisations need to put wellbeing strategies in place, not just discrete interventions that only target people at an individual level. Things like EAPs and occupational sick pay schemes, which are already common — and judging by the figures, don’t appear to be having any effect, especially when it comes to the more difficult issues around long-term sickness absence (63% of employees are on long-term sick leave because of poor mental health, for example).
But the picture on sickness suggests a bigger problem, one of basic workplace culture. In a workplace environment where people feel overwhelmed, mistrustful of management, have little sense of engagement, then stress eventually leads to ill health and absence, one way or another.
The importance of a well-being strategy
In her response, the CIPD’s Rachel Suff hit the nail on the head. Having a well-being strategy has to be a good thing, but you don’t want to miss the more essential point about culture. “It’s important that organisations create an open, supportive culture where employees feel they can come forward,” she said. People need to feel safe, like they’re really listened to and understood, not just walking performance targets.
The report is right to conclude there needs to be a shift in terms of responsibility among organisations for their employee wellbeing, more of an acknowledgement of the impact of modern work pressures and routines on health, that there’s a shared responsibility. At the same time, that has to include a commitment to creating a healthy workplace when it comes to relationships and how people treat each other.
First of all, that means having a ‘Clear Air Culture’.
The kind of workplace where people feel comfortable in speaking up about their challenges (which is just not as common as anyone might think), can have open conversations with line managers about workloads, levels of pressure and relationships inside teams, and simply be themselves: getting things out in the open in a constructive way and defusing the stress; stopping the slide into illness.
In practice, that involves employers and HR paying more attention to the conversation skills needed, the ability of managers and employees generally to deal with difficult conversations and challenge by drawing on those all-important qualities: empathy, curiosity, self-awareness, reflective listening and situational awareness. It also means looking into levels of psychological safety among teams and how they can be restored and developed.
Arran Heal, Managing Director, CMP
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