Is well-being moving up your workplace agenda?

Written by
Dr Jill Miller

04 Apr 2017

04 Apr 2017 • by Dr Jill Miller

Employee well-being has moved up the agenda for many employers, with 46% saying they have increased their focus on it this year, and around two-fifths (37%) of those that invest in well-being saying they’ve increased their spend in the last 12 months. This is good news, but also indicates there is still a long way to go before well-being is characteristic of UK workplaces. The findings from our CIPD/Simplyhealth 2016 Absence Management survey highlight areas where we can continue to move the agenda forward.

The majority of organisations are taking some action to support employee well-being, with only 8% of respondents telling us they not currently doing anything in this respect. However, organisations vary considerably in how actively they promote well-being, with only a third (35%) having a well-being strategy or plan in place. 19% say they don’t have a strategy or plan, but rather they have well-being initiatives in place, and a further 38% say they act flexibly on an ad-hoc basis, according to employee need.

Plan ahead

Having a structured plan enables you as an HR professional to tie together the different strands of well-being activity you are engaging in as a business, and to then see where gaps may be in your provision. For example, does your well-being offering support good mental health as well as good physical health and lifestyle choices? In the survey, just under half of organisations said their well-being offering focused equally on all three aspects to some extent. 

It’s also important to review the extent to which the current support you offer to staff is reactive (provided when people go off sick) or proactive (promoting healthy choices and good well-being). Nearly three-fifths of employers told us in the survey that their organisation is more reactive than proactive when it comes to well-being. As well as providing support for employees who are off work sick, employers need to consider what they can offer that can prevent people going off sick in the first place. Your absence data should be able to tell you the main reasons for sickness absence and inform your choice of interventions. 

Notably more organisations this year have made changes to their existing well-being approach. It’s important to regularly review your current offering and revise it according to employee need. Almost two-thirds of employers this year say they have improved communication to staff about the well-being benefits on offer and how to access them, compared to just 48% in 2015. You may already have a great well-being offering in place, but if employees don’t know what’s available or how to access it, usage will be low. As well as the regularity of messages also consider the mode of communication you use. For example, although you may want to advertise an employee assistance program in a busy area to increase awareness of it, some people may not feel comfortable writing down the number in front of others, so the phone number could be communicated via a desk drop of leaflets, or in quieter areas.

As well as these positive moves, the Absence Management survey also highlighted three worrying trends. The first is that stress is reported to be the most common cause of long-term absence and the second most common cause of short-term absence, after minor illness. Just under a third (31%) of organisations said stress-related absence had decreased over the past year, with just 12% saying it has decreased. These figures are, however, an improvement on last year with the 2015 figures being 41% and 7% respectively. The main causes of stress at work are workloads/volume of work, non-work factors (relationships/family) and management style. 

Mental health issues

The second concerning trend that requires action is the prevalence of mental ill health as a cause of absence. Two-fifths (41%) of survey respondents told us there’s been an increase in reported mental health problems (such as anxiety and depression) over the past 12 months in their organisation. The survey findings suggest that organisations are better at providing support when a problem emerges than at taking steps to promote good mental health. For example, 52% of organisations provide flexible working options/improved work-life balance, 47% provide an employee assistance programme and 43% provide access to a counselling service, but only 31% are increasing awareness of mental health issues across the workforce. In just 32% of organisations, senior leaders support the organisation’s focus on mental well-being through the actions and behaviour and only 29% of the HR professionals responding to the survey felt managers are confident to have sensitive discussions with staff and signpost to expert sources of mental health support if needed. 

The third worrying trend is the rise in the number of employers telling us this year that long working hours are the norm, at least to a moderate extent, in their organisation (2016: 56%; 2015: 43%). Long working hours was found to be associated with the two other trends that require action. Those employers who reported an increase in reported mental health problems over the last year were somewhat more likely to also report a long hours’ culture. And those who reported an increase in stress-related absence over the past year were more likely than those that haven’t to also say long working hours is the norm at their organisation. 

To return to the good news, more organisations this year are taking action to discourage presenteeism (people coming to work ill). Nearly half of survey respondents (48%) told us their organisation is taking this action over the past year. This is good news given that presenteeism is still an issue for UK workplaces, with 72% saying they have seen this happening and 29% saying they’ve seen an increase in presenteeism over the past year. Messages to the workforce about the importance of attendance at work, and having a well-communicated absence policy, needs to be balanced with a clear message that it’s ok to take time off when you’re ill to recover.  

These are some of the main findings from this year’s CIPD/Simplyhealth Absence Management survey report which signal calls to action for UK employers. To create a healthy workplace it’s important to make sure your well-being is aligned to employee need and to regularly review the impact of your offering. Only 17% of organisations evaluate the impact of their well-being spend – a practice that is essential to secure further investment in the area. 

To download a copy of the survey report, go to: