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.
The biggest cause, according to the CIPD, has been workplace stress and issues with mental health. 76% of employees in a survey pointed to stress caused primarily by ‘heavy workloads’ and ‘management style’. Meanwhile, poor mental health is recorded as being responsible for more than half of cases of long-term absence.
In other words, HR is facing a difficult tangle of health issues mixed up with grievances relating to performance, relationships and attitudes to work.
A minefield of sensitivities
Unpicking this tangle comes with serious risks. Recent years have seen more employment tribunals relating to disputes over long-term absence and honesty around the causes. Among managers and HR there is always going to be a question mark about the actual degree and nature of psychological conditions that are difficult to diagnose and assess even by specialists. And unlike something similarly ‘invisible’, such as back pain, who has the nerve to doubt and query such a personal and sensitive problem? So it’s a minefield of sensitivities that will sometimes involve facing up to difficult situations, including the potential for dishonesty and malicious intent.
In order to create a ‘Clear Air Culture’, where staff and line managers feel able to discuss issues relating to stress and mental health openly, organisations need to:
1. Identify the basic strengths and weaknesses of current provision in terms of what happens to complaints, whistleblowing, complaint handling, grievance resolution, performance management, absence management and the relevant learning and development. Do you have a continuum of options for people to get support when matters do escalate? Does everyone agree to try and resolve matters at the most local, informal level possible?
2. Equip line managers in particular with ‘Conversational Integrity’, giving them the tools and the confidence to deal with situations relating to mental health in consistently open and reasonable ways: neither just trying to be ‘nice’, nor being ‘tough’ and blurting out personal opinions. In this way it’s possible for employers to help their staff see and reach the root causes of problems and genuinely help them to find the best outcome.
3. Assess the gap between values and behaviours in the organisation by measuring the behavioural competency of their teams or functions. Once there has been training or other forms of learning, this gap can be re-assessed to demonstrate progress over time, whether and how levels of Conversational Integrity are being embedded.
4. Put more resources into supporting people away from escalating their negative feelings, and towards dialogue with each other. Some managers have the inbuilt skills to manage conflict constructively. Others will need support if they are to have difficult or courageous conversations. Review your management programmes to ensure they include the soft skills involved in embracing positive conflict and defusing negative conflict;
5. Support and train your managers to deal with formal complaints and grievances consistently and fairly; when conflict reaches the formal stages of a grievance or disciplinary hearing, it’s critical that the decision-makers involved, typically senior managers, are always consistent and untainted by subjective perceptions;
6. Motivate and train employees to have difficult conversations with each other and with their manager, for example in how to challenge colleagues’ banter or perceived manager’s bullying – skills which can be expanded to include how they respond to difficult situations with the full range of stakeholders working with a a department;
7. Make sure there are consistent messages about expectations of line managers and their staff in terms of encouraging open conversations — and make it clear about support and development available.
The importance of Conversational Integrity
According to Government figures, around 300,000 people leave the workforce each year because of mental health challenges, a drain of skills and experience. In principle, the great majority should still be able to work, and would benefit from continuing to be part of a workplace culture, the routine, sense of purpose and camaraderie. With the right levels of Conversational Integrity, an open, straightforward culture, the painful tangles of mental ill-health can be loosened and unpicked in sensitive and helpful ways, with benefits for everyone.
Photo by MART PRODUCTION