The 23rd annual CIPD Health and wellbeing at work report, supported by Simplyhealth, shows the highest sickness absence rate for over a decade. The average rate of employee absence now stands at 7.8 days per employee per year, a considerable increase since we last reported this from data collected before the pandemic in October/November 2019 (5.8 days per employee). With people professionals responding in over 900 organisations covering 6.5 million employees, the survey data represent an authoritative insight on workplace health. 

This begs the question, why? Are people becoming more unwell, or are organisations not managing sickness absence as effectively? We can’t be crude in our approach to understanding the reasons for absence, and people professionals need to look at sickness absence rates in their specific workforce to understand the patterns and causes. Further, the sickness absence rate is only one indicator of employee health and wellbeing, and organisations need to look at other metrics such as referrals to occupational health, employee engagement rates, and stress risk assessments to understand what’s driving health, absence and attendance in the organisation.  

There are likely to be many factors having an impact on absence levels, and there is also the wider context to bear in mind. It has been a challenging few years for many individuals and organisations that have impacted on some employees’ health and wellbeing. We always knew the pandemic would have a long tail in terms of mental wellbeing for some, and the uncertainty and disruption during the pandemic has continued with further events including economic turbulence, a cost-of-living crisis, and war.   

The causes of absence are similar to previous years. Minor illness is most commonly responsible for short-term absence while mental ill-health, musculoskeletal injuries, acute medical conditions, and stress are the most common causes of long-term absence.   

Presenteeism remains prevalent 

Presenteeism is another important indicator of people’s health and our findings show that far too many people continue to work when they are unwell. Around three in four respondents have observed presenteeism among employees working at home and in a workplace.   

These findings suggest that many organisations haven’t been taking effective action to combat the risks of an ‘always on’ culture. Boundaries between work and home life can become more blurred for many people working from home, making it difficult for people to switch off when they lose the natural boundary/routine they have of leaving the office or other workplace at the end of the day.  

Increased wellbeing provision in several areas 

However, the survey results also show that the majority of organisations are putting a lot of investment into employee wellbeing and trying to take a holistic approach. For example: 

  • despite the increased cost pressures on organisations, just 7% anticipate a decrease in their health and wellbeing budget over the next 12 months, whilst nearly a third (31%) anticipate an increase 
  • more organisations have employee assistance programmes for all or some employees (2023: 84%; 2022: 74%) 
  • financial wellbeing, a previously neglected area, is receiving increased attention.  Nearly three-fifths (57%) report their health and wellbeing activity is designed to promote financial wellbeing to a large or moderate extent up from just over two-fifths (44%) last year  
  • over half (53%) of organisations have a standalone wellbeing strategy although a third (33%) take a much more reactive than proactive approach. 

Mixed support for wellbeing issues through the employee lifecycle 

The survey also explored the extent of organisations’ wellbeing support through the employee lifecycle and finds considerable variation in the extent to which organisations include specific wellbeing provision for particular groups of employees or for certain wellbeing issues. For example:  

  • health and wellbeing activity usually includes at least some provision for working parents/carers of children and bereavement 
  • nearly half of organisations (46%) include provision for menopause transition ‘to a large or moderate extent’, up from 30% last year 
  • more organisations are also including provision for pregnancy loss compared with last year (37% ‘to a large or moderate extent’ compared with 26% in 2022) 
  • provision for issues such as chronic health conditions, suicide prevention, pregnancy loss and men’s health is more mixed 
  • few organisations currently have policy provision for menstrual health (15% in a standalone policy or as part of another policy) but 19% report they plan to introduce a policy.  

People managers still need more investment and support to manage employee wellbeing 

CIPD research has found people managers are very often the ‘squeezed middle’ and can face competing demands: under pressure to deliver on their operational priorities but also shouldering a lot of responsibility for their people management role. We have also seen through this survey year on year that there are higher expectations of managers to support employee wellbeing, but they are not always accompanied by an increase in the support, guidance and training they receive in this area. For example, under half (42%)  of organisations have trained managers to support people in relation to mental health and organisations are much more likely to train mental health first aiders (66%).  

And yet people managers play a key role in supporting people’s health and wellbeing. They are not medical experts but can act as a gateway for expert sources of help and helpful adjustments. They take primary responsibility for managing short-term absence in 70% of organisations and long-term absence in 61%.    

Around two-thirds (67%) of respondents believe that managers are bought into the importance of wellbeing.  However, lack of people manager skills and confidence is the most common challenge for employee wellbeing and ‘management style’ remains among the top causes of stress-related absence. Overall, 68% provide managers with tailored support and 59% provide some training in absence-handling.   

How people managers behave and the relationships they build will be instrumental in how effectively they support employee wellbeing. The CIPD has developed resources to help managers explore and develop their management capability. 

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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