The COVID-19 pandemic has already posed unimaginable risks to populations across the globe. Its impact has extended directly into UK workplaces and is obvious across a number of the findings in the 2021 CIPD Health and wellbeing at work survey report, in partnership with Simplyhealth. The huge disruption caused to employee attendance means this is the first time in 20 years that we haven’t been able to provide a reliable sickness absence rate, for example.

Our survey shows most organisations have increased their focus on health and wellbeing and doing their best to support people in a holistic way. The vast majority of organisations have taken additional action to support employee health and wellbeing in response to COVID-19. In particular, many have increased their focus on looking after employees’ mental health (84% of organisations) and are providing more tailored support to address individuals’ needs and concerns (83%).

With the growth in home-working it’s positive that nearly three-quarters (74%) are providing new or improved support for people working from home, although less than half (47%) are providing new or better support for employees with caring responsibilities. 

Combatting psychological risks

Mental ill health has been a significant and growing challenge for organisations over the past few years, further exacerbated by the COVID-19. The survey highlights a high level of concern on the part of HR professionals for people’s mental health as a result of the challenges they face.  Over two-fifths (42%) of respondents are ‘extremely concerned’ about the impact of the pandemic on employees’ mental health and a further two-fifths (40%) are moderately concerned. 

Workloads remain by far the most common cause of stress at work (according to 59% of respondents), followed by management style (32%), as in previous years. The COVID-19 pandemic has created additional causes of stress, which also feature among the top causes of stress at work: three in 10 (31%) cite new work-related demands or challenges due to homeworking as a result of COVID-19 as the third main cause, for example

Most organisations have stepped up their efforts to tackle mental ill health and stress.  Just over three-quarters (77%) of respondents believe their organisation actively promotes good mental wellbeing (up from 58% last year), although just half believe it is effective in tackling workplace stress or in identifying and managing the mental health risks arising from COVID-19. 

Organisations need to identify the main threats to people’s mental wellbeing, for example by conducting stress risk audits, and developing effective action plans to address them. The aim should be to consider the health and wellbeing of the whole person, making sure employees are aware of the services and support available to them and how to access them. Also, it’s crucial organisations that promote an open and inclusive working environment so that people feel confident about discussing a mental health issue and the challenges they are experiencing.

Line managers need more support

There are still far too few organisations equipping them with the knowledge and skills to support people’s health effectively. Just over two-fifths (43%, down from 51% in last year’s survey) train line managers to support staff with mental ill health. Therefore, it’s not surprising less than four in ten (38%) HR professionals agree that managers are confident to have sensitive discussions and signpost people to expert sources of help if needed; even fewer (31%) agree managers have the skills and confidence to spot the early warning signs of mental ill health. 

Managing people, and their health and wellbeing, is a big job – and an important one. Line managers are under considerable pressure in the current climate, and they will also be experiencing many of the same concerns as those they manage. The continuing impact of COVID-19 means they will be managing a potentially complex mix of personal situations in their teams. 

Managers need to treat people as individuals and take into account their personal, as well as work-related, issues. This means having the competence to nurture trust-based relationships with those they manage, so individuals feel they can talk about any work or wellbeing issues. To perform this role effectively, managers need the behaviours, education and capability they will only gain from receiving the right training, support and expert guidance.

Keeping wellbeing on the boardroom agenda

The findings show a step change in the proportion of senior leaders that have employee wellbeing on their agenda (75% up from 61% last year). It’s very encouraging that senior leaders are taking more serious notice of wellbeing issues because they have the influence to transform the culture as well as practice in organisations. 

Good leadership and people management practices form the foundations of building a healthy workplace, and all organisations need to focus on these areas to make a sustainable difference to people’s wellbeing.

Over the past few years we have reported slow but steady progress by organisations in adopting a holistic approach to employee wellbeing, and it’s good to see this trend continuing. Most make efforts to promote mental health, ‘good work’, collective/social relationships, values/principles and physical health, for example. However, all wellbeing dimensions need concerted focus if organisations are to make a difference in preventing ill health and enhancing wellbeing, besides supporting people when they become unwell. 

A key priority for HR professionals and leaders going forward, as we hopefully move from a situation of pandemic to ‘endemic’, is that people’s health and wellbeing continues to receive heightened attention in the boardroom when the threat from COVID-19 no longer presents an urgent business continuity issue. 

About the author

Rachel Suff, Senior Policy Adviser, Employee Relations

Rachel Suff joined the CIPD as a policy adviser in 2014 to increase the CIPD’s public policy profile and engage with politicians, civil servants, policy-makers and commentators to champion better work and working lives. An important part of her role is to ensure that the views of the profession inform CIPD policy thinking on issues such as health and wellbeing, employee engagement and employment relations. As well as conducting research on UK employment issues, she helps guide the CIPD’s thinking in relation to European developments affecting the world of work. Rachel’s prior roles include working as a researcher for XpertHR and as a senior policy adviser at Acas.

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