Occupational health’s importance and leadership have been amplified during the pandemic, the latest annual workplace health snapshot from the CIPD has shown. In particular, the expertise it can bring to supporting and rehabilitating people with long Covid is valued by employers. However, as Nic Paton reports, employers could still be thinking more strategically about health and work.
The CIPD’s Health and Wellbeing at Work survey is one of the annual workplace health snapshots OH practitioners often keep an eye out for.
The report, for the past few years published in partnership with insurer Simplyhealth, has a very simple remit: to examine the practices that organisations have put in place to support people’s health at work.
It also provides useful benchmarking data on areas such as absence management, wellbeing benefits provision and mental health. Its conclusions are based on an online poll of people professionals and senior UK HR leaders. For the 2022 report this covered 804 organisations and 4.3 million employees.
Covid still dominating the conversation
So, what does this year’s report tell us? First, unsurprisingly, the impact of Covid-19 on work and workplace health is the dominant theme running through the report.
Two-thirds (67%) of the organisations polled included Covid-19 among their top three causes of short-term absence (up from 39% last year) and just over a quarter (26%) reported long Covid among their top causes of long-term absence.
Positively for the profession, among employers already engaging with health and wellbeing activity, more than a quarter (27%) were now using greater involvement of OH specialists as an additional way to support employee health in response to Covid.
Covid-19 and work
Almost one in ten (8%) organisations said they had lost more than 25% of working time to Covid-19-related absence in the previous 12 months. Most organisations were taking additional measures to support employee health and wellbeing in response to Covid-19, the report added.
Most commonly these additional measures took the form of more tailored support to address individuals’ needs and concerns (81%), an increased focus on employees’ mental health (81%), and new or better support for people working from home (72%).
A third of organisations (33%) had increased their budget for wellbeing benefits as a consequence of the pandemic.
Critically in the context of return to work and rehabilitation, nearly half (46%) of organisations said they had employees who had experienced long Covid (or symptoms lasting 12 weeks or more) in the last 12 months.
Heightened long Covid role for OH
Positively, the majority were taking steps to support those individuals. As we reported earlier this week, most commonly this was through a combination of occupational health assessments, tailoring support to meet individual needs and promoting flexible working, as the report showed in the graphic below.
Fewer employers (26%) provided guidance/training for line managers on how to support people to stay at work when managing health conditions, however.
Perhaps again unsurprising, considering where we are now with the pandemic and all the other pressures facing organisations, the report identified that there was less of a focus on health and wellbeing compared with the first year of the pandemic.
Seven in ten (70%) of the HR respondents agreed that employee wellbeing was still on senior leaders’ agendas, but this was down from 75% last year. A total of 60% believed that line managers have now bought into the importance of wellbeing, though again this was down from 67% last year.
While the CIPD does concede these figures are lower than in the first year of the pandemic, it also argues the longer-term trend is still pointing to employee wellbeing gradually rising up the corporate agenda.
As it has argued in the report: “Looking forward, nearly one in ten (9%) respondents expect their organisation’s health and wellbeing budget to increase significantly over the next 12 months and a further 32% for it to increase slightly. Few anticipate decreases in their budget.”
Still work to do on strategic thinking
When it comes to the extent to which (or even whether) employers are taking a strategic approach to employee wellbeing, the conclusions are a bit of a mixed bag.
Looking forward, nearly one in ten (9%) respondents expect their organisation’s health and wellbeing budget to increase significantly over the next 12 months and a further 32% for it to increase slightly. Few anticipate decreases in their budget.” – CIPD/Simplyhealth report
Half of organisations (51%) do take a strategic approach to employee wellbeing, the report has said (though of course this suggests nearly half are still failing to do so).
These organisations that did think strategically were far more likely to report a number of positive achievements from their activity, at both the individual and organisational level.
Health and wellbeing activity most commonly focused on mental health (the main cause of long-term absence) but most forward-thinking employers also made some effort to promote values/principles, collective/social relationships, good work (for example, job design, work–life balance) and physical health, the CIPD/Simplyhealth argued.
Financial wellbeing remained something of a neglected area, although whether this remains the case with the current intense focus on the rising cost of living probably remains moot.
There was considerable variation in the extent to which organisations included specific wellbeing provision for particular groups of employees (such as carers) or issues (such as bereavement, suicide risk and prevention, chronic health conditions or good sleep hygiene), the report also highlighted.
Only a minority of employers included provision for issues such as menstrual health and men’s health. Worryingly, nearly one in five (19%) admitted they were not currently doing anything to improve employee health and wellbeing.
Less intensity around stress
When it came to managing or supporting stress, there had been a “small dip” in activity compared with the first year of the pandemic, again perhaps unsurprising given that the intense focus of that period was always unlikely to be sustainable.
Two-thirds (66%) of respondents were extremely or moderately concerned about the impact of the pandemic on employees’ mental health, down from 82% last year.
“We have seen a small dip in activity to address workplace stress compared with last year and fewer organisations are taking action to increase awareness of mental health issues or to identify mental ill health among staff who work remotely,” the report said.
“However, the vast majority of organisations are taking action to support employee mental health at work, most commonly through employee assistance programmes, phased return to work or other reasonable adjustments, or access to counselling services,” it added.
Just over two-thirds (68%) of respondents believed their organisation actively promoted good mental wellbeing (down from 77% last year). Around half believed they were effective in tackling workplace stress (52%) or in identifying and managing the mental health risks arising from Covid-19 (48%).
When it came to practical measures to reduce stress, employee assistance programmes, flexible working options, improved work-life balance and staff surveys or focus groups to identify causes remain the most common methods used to identify and reduce stress.
Public sector organisations were more likely to involve occupational health specialists (68%, compared with 45% of non-profits and 28% of the private sector). They were also more likely to conduct risk assessments/ stress audits (78%, compared with 59% of non-profits and 46% of the private sector).
Impact of presenteeism and leavism
More positively, organisations were taking proactive steps to tackle ‘presenteeism’, the CIPD and Simplyhealth concluded, even though working when ill remains a prevalent and persistent problem.
One intriguing finding from the report was that fewer HR respondents reported observing it in the workplace (65% in the 2022 report compared to 75% in 2021) although more reported observing it among those working from home (81% in 2022 versus 77% in 2021).
This unprecedented period in our working lives has also presented opportunities: it’s proven how fundamental employee wellbeing really is to organisational resilience” – Rachel Suff, CIPD
It is unclear whether this is because of greater likelihood of home/work barriers becoming blurred when working from home or simply because it is easier to struggle to your desk when working in a home office, or a combination of the two. However, it is probably logical to assume these factors play at least a part.
“Over the last few years there has been a steady increase in the proportion of organisations that are taking steps to discourage presenteeism (53% of organisations in 2022 compared with 45% in 2021 and 32% in 2020),” the report argued.
“Two-thirds (67%) of HR respondents are aware of some form of ‘leaveism’ such as using holiday entitlement to work or when sick over the past 12 months. Just three in ten respondents (30%) report that their organisation has taken steps to tackle it, in little change from last year.
“Just half (51%) of organisations taking steps to address leaveism and 27% of those taking steps to address presenteeism are investigating their potential causes,” it added.
Critical role of line managers
As in many previous iterations of the report, one key conclusion reached is that line managers play an absolutely pivotal role in managing all this yet often lack the skills required.
As the report has made clear: “The majority of organisations look to line managers to take primary responsibility for managing both short-term (70%) and long-term (61%) absence. Six in ten (60%) provide managers with training in handling short-term absence and 65% provide them with tailored support for managing long-term absence.
“Less than two-fifths (38%) of HR respondents agree that managers are confident to have sensitive discussions and signpost people to expert sources of help when needed; even fewer (29%) believe they are confident and competent to spot the early warning signs of mental ill health.
“This isn’t surprising given that just over two-fifths (44%) of organisations are training managers to support staff with mental ill health. Management style remains among the most common causes of stress at work,” it added.
Three key areas for action
Rachel Suff, the CIPD’s senior policy adviser, employment relations, argued the report illustrated the need for “immediate action” in three key areas:
- the need to address the stubborn gap between the responsibility on managers to support employee wellbeing and employers’ investment in their capability to meet these high expectations;
- more proactive steps to prevent or mitigate ill health issues where possible, including early intervention to manage work-related stress; and
- effective strategies to support people with long-term health conditions, particularly long Covid as a new and complex condition affecting a significant number of employees.
As she put it in conclusion: “The impact of the past two years on people’s health and wellbeing can’t be overestimated. At the same time, this unprecedented period in our working lives has also presented opportunities: it’s proven how fundamental employee wellbeing really is to organisational resilience, and it’s given organisations the chance to learn from the experience of implementing new initiatives at scale and at speed.
“We need to hold on to these learnings to improve wellbeing practices and working lives now and in the future,” Suff added.