People’s health and well-being has risen sharply up the workplace agenda in recent years, and rightly so: there is no more important issue in the modern workplace. Our new Health and Wellbeing at Work 2018 survey report, in partnership with SimplyHealth shows that organisations vary considerably in how proactive they are in promoting employee well-being.

Our findings indicate that some organisations are making considerable efforts to promote employee well-being and create a healthy working environment. A higher proportion have a standalone well-being strategy compared with our 2016 survey, and most organisations take a fairly holistic approach to well-being. However, nearly three-fifths report that they act flexibly on an ad hoc basis, according to individual need, as opposed to taking a preventative and strategic approach. Around half agree that employee well-being is on senior leaders’ agendas and that line managers are bought in to the importance of well-being.

It’s encouraging that most respondents believe that their organisation’s health and well-being activity has had positive results in the last year, most frequently cited are better employee morale and engagement (44%), a healthier and more inclusive culture (35%), and lower sickness absence (31%).

Worrying workplace trends

Despite the progress that has clearly been made by employers in supporting employee health and well-being in recent years, there are also grounds for concern. The survey reveals that mental ill health is an even more significant issue for organisations than it was in 2016: over a fifth (22%) now report that mental ill health is the primary cause of long-term absence compared with 13% in 2016, and there has also been a significant increase in the number of reported common mental health conditions among employees in the past 12 months. Hopefully, the fact that many more organisations are raising awareness of mental health issues across their workforces (51% in 2018 versus 31% in 2016) is fostering a more open culture where employees are more willing to talk about their mental health.

Other findings reveal how important it is for organisations to look beyond headline absence rates to gauge the state of people’s health and well-being. For example, year on year, our survey findings are showing a rising culture of ‘presenteeism’ (people working when unwell) in UK workplaces.

The rising trends of ‘presenteeism’ and ‘leaveism’ (people using allocated time off to work) identified in our research show how organisational cultures and work pressures are more powerful in guiding employee behaviour than well-being initiatives. Nearly nine respondents in ten have observed presenteesim in their organisation over the past 12 months – and people feeling the need to work when ill is not the sign of a healthy workplace. It is also disappointing that the proportion of organisations taking steps to tackle presenteeism has halved since 2016.

If organisations are serious about improving people’s well-being, they need to dig deep and take action to combat the root problems causing poor mental health, such as unmanageable workloads – yet again by far the greatest cause of stress at work according to our survey. HR needs to develop a solid, evidence-based understanding of the causes of unhealthy practices such as ‘presenteeism’ and ‘leaveism’ and other factors that could adversely affect employee well-being. Unless well-being activity addresses the underlying issues affecting people’s behaviour, efforts to support employees and improve health and well-being will be short-lived.

A ‘whole organisation’ approach is needed

An effective employee well-being strategy requires a ‘whole organisation’ approach, along with serious leadership commitment and supportive line management. Unsurprisingly, organisations that have a standalone well-being strategy, senior managers with well-being on their agenda and line managers who recognise the importance of well-being are more likely to report positive outcomes.

Yet our findings show less than a third of senior leaders encourage a focus on mental well-being through their actions and behaviour, or that line managers are trained in supporting people with mental ill health. Unless there is a substantial improvement in both these areas, it’s hard to see how organisations will achieve the step change needed to improve people’s well-being at work.

The HR profession has a key role to play in steering the health and well-being agenda by ensuring that senior managers regard it as a priority, and that employee well-being practices are integrated in the organisation’s day-to-day operations. It is HR professionals who will have the strategic vision to embrace health and well-being as a holistic practice that should be aligned to corporate goals, because it is they who will appreciate the significant benefits that can be realised.

Strengthen the capability of line managers

Line managers also have an important part to play in promoting employee well-being and attendance. They are often responsible for managing absence (particularly short-term absence), and for making appropriate adjustments for people with an impairment or long-term health condition. Our findings show that health and well-being activity has more positive outcomes where line managers are bought in to the importance of well-being.

Developing line manager knowledge, skills and confidence is a clear priority on the well-being agenda. However, just over half of respondents report that line managers are trained to manage absence in their organisation, while fewer provide training for managers to manage stress, mental ill health, disability, long-term health conditions or ‘presenteeism’. More positively, we have seen an increase this year in the proportion of organisations that are providing line managers with tailored support for managing absence.

Managers don’t need to be health experts but they do need to recognise the value of health and well-being in their teams, be able to spot early warning signs of stress and ill health, have the competence to have sensitive conversations, direct employees to appropriate sources of help and actively promote attendance and well-being. This can be a daunting prospect for a line manager who is not adequately equipped to deal with these issues, with their own health and well-being potentially in jeopardy if they lack the necessary skills, confidence and time to support employee well-being effectively. Responsibility for employee health and well-being should be an integral part of their role, and organisations need to provide them with the necessary training and support.

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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