Optimising people’s wellbeing is integral to the CIPD’s purpose, to champion better work and working lives. Similarly, health and wellbeing should be integral to an organisation’s business goals and day-to-day operations – any efforts that treat it as a ‘nice to have’ won’t be effective.

Last year, findings from the annual CIPD/Simplyhealth survey report showed how Covid-19 accelerated many organisations’ activity on employee wellbeing. The challenge was always going to be how we ensure it remains a priority boardroom issue when the nation emerges from the pandemic. This year, there are already signs in our Health and wellbeing at work survey report that the focus on health and wellbeing has waned slightly at the top table. For example, seven in ten (70%) of HR respondents agree that employee wellbeing is on senior leaders’ agendas (down from 75% last year) and 42% agree that senior leaders encourage a focus on mental wellbeing through their actions and behaviour (down from 48% last year).

Responding to the long-term impacts of Covid-19

As we emerge from the acute phase of the pandemic, its long-term health impacts on the nation’s working population will be felt for many years. This includes longer-term mental health impacts as well as those individuals who continue to experience ongoing symptoms from Covid-19, so called ‘long Covid’. A worrying finding from our survey shows almost half (46%) of organisations have employees with direct experience of long Covid in the last 12 months. Further, one in four organisations (26%) include long Covid among their main causes of long-term absence.  

We are still learning about the real impact of long Covid on people’s physical and mental health, but it’s clearly a significant concern and needs attention from HR professionals. It’s vital that organisations, working with occupational health services, are as informed as possible about this potentially debilitating condition so that they can effectively manage and support affected employees. If individuals don’t receive appropriate understanding and support, the risk is that work could exacerbate someone’s symptoms, and many employees could even fall out of work. 

This new condition shares characteristics with many chronic health conditions. (See the CIPD practical guidance for HR and line managers on managing and supporting employees with long-term health conditions.) However, there are some differences that organisations need to be aware of. Our research report has evidence-based advice for supporting people with long Covid, and there are four practical guides to ensure people receive comprehensive support in the workplace – for HR professionals, line managers, employees and colleagues. 

Foster ‘good work’ to nurture good mental health

 While the vast majority (81%) of organisations increased their focus on mental health in response to the pandemic, just under half (48%) believe that they have been effective at identifying and managing the mental health risks arising from Covid-19. There are several reasons for this, and the survey findings suggest some areas where organisations could heighten their focus to improve the impact of their activity.

Year on year, our survey findings show that organisations put more emphasis on providing support when people become ill than on preventing poor health, including mental ill-health and stress. We need both approaches and want to see every organisation taking a proactive approach to employee wellbeing. This means creating the working conditions and environment that manage and mitigate the main health risks and provide ‘good work’ to support good wellbeing. It has long been proven that good work is good for health and can reduce health and economic inequalities. 

There is much work to do to improve job quality to ensure it improves mental health outcomes. Employers should design jobs with realistic workloads and targets, and put enough resources in place to avoid overwork. They should ensure managers are trained and capable to set realistic performance objectives, monitor workloads and manage by outcomes.

Other key actions that could help to build mentally healthy workplaces include:

  • Implement a systematic framework to improve mental health outcomes for people such as the Mental Health at Work Commitment, a framework of six standards with key actions linking to practical tools and guidance. We have developed our own hub with CIPD resources to support the Commitment. 
  • Manage the risks of stress and poor mental health. See the Health and Safety Executive’s range of practical tools to help managers start a conversation with team members (see Stress Risk Assessment including the Talking Toolkit).
  • ‘Management style’ continues to be a major cause of work-related stress, showing how harmful the health impact can be if organisations don’t equip line managers to perform their people management role in the right way. Ensure they are supported and trained to be an effective people manager and to look after health and wellbeing in their teams.
  • Take an evidence-based approach to tackle unhealthy practices like ‘presenteeism’ - ‘presenteeism’ remains prevalent and is more likely to be observed among employees based at home (81%) compared with those in the workplace (65%). Work with senior leaders and managers to understand the risk factors and causes of presenteeism in particular functions and teams. Are workloads, targets, deadlines – and management expectations - realistic? 

Ensure employee wellbeing remains a boardroom imperative 

The leadership of an organisation is pivotal to making sure that health and wellbeing is taken seriously, is embedded in its day-to-day people management practices, and is underpinned by good work. Senior leaders also have a defining influence on the culture and how people behave towards each other. Now more than ever we need leaders who are not afraid to show compassion, who consciously role-model healthy working practices and foster an environment where people feel safe to speak about health issues and seek help. 

We could never assume that employee wellbeing would remain centre stage in organisations post-pandemic, but the CIPD is determined to ensure it receives the attention it deserves and is seen as a key driver of business success. Authentic and visible leadership, combined with strong management capability, are the pillars that support a healthy workplace. Without both, an organisation’s efforts to create an inclusive culture and support employee wellbeing will be short-lived. 

Our 2022 report includes a practical guide for HR to help focus action where it can make the most difference. There are also two inspiring case studies showing how two organisations have integrated health and wellbeing priorities across their operations during the pandemic, to make a tangible difference to the quality of people’s working lives.

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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