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UK: How to Help Stop Workplaces Making People Ill

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Sickness absence has reached a 10-year high in the U.K.: Employees took an average of 7.8 days of sick leave in the last year. That’s an increase of two whole days over pre-pandemic levels.

What’s happening? The research authors (the CIPD with Simplyhealth, which looked at data from 6.5 million employees at 918 U.K. organizations), say there’s still a hangover from COVID-19, and maybe also a related change in attitudes to the need for taking sick leave.

Most of all, there’s a problem with workplace stress. Seventy-six percent of employees suggested it was the main factor: stress, they said, that had been caused primarily by “heavy workloads” and “management style.”

The Impact of Stress

The research authors argue that organizations need to put well-being strategies in place, not just discrete interventions that target people only at an individual level. Things like employee assistance programs and occupational sick pay schemes are already common. Judging by the figures, they don’t appear to be having enough of an effect, especially when it comes to the more difficult issues around long-term sickness absence—63 percent of employees are on long-term sick leave because of poor mental health, for example.

The picture of sickness suggests a larger problem, one of basic workplace culture. In a workplace environment where people feel overwhelmed, mistrustful of management and have little sense of engagement, then stress eventually leads to ill health and absence.

The Importance of a Well-Being Strategy

The CIPD’s Rachel Suff, senior policy adviser for employment relations in London, hit the nail on the head. Having a well-being strategy has to be a good thing, but you don’t want to miss the more essential point about culture. “It’s important that organizations create an open, supportive culture where employees feel they can come forward,” she said. People need to feel safe, like they’re really listened to and understood, not just walking performance targets.

The report is right to conclude that there needs to be a shift in terms of responsibility among organizations for their employee well-being—more of an acknowledgment of the impact of modern work pressures and routines on health, and that there’s a shared responsibility. At the same time, that includes a commitment to creating a healthy workplace when it comes to relationships and how people treat each other.

That means having a “Clear Air Culture.”

The kind of workplace where people feel comfortable in speaking up about their challenges (which is not as common as anyone might think), can have open conversations with line managers about workloads, levels of pressure and relationships inside teams, and simply be themselves. Get things out in the open in a constructive way and defuse the stress. Help stop the slide into illness.

In practice, that involves employers and HR paying more attention to the conversation skills needed, the ability of managers and employees generally to deal with difficult conversations and challenges by drawing on those all-important qualities: empathy, curiosity, self-awareness, reflective listening and situational awareness. It also means looking into levels of psychological safety among teams and how they can be restored and developed.

Arran Heal is managing director with CMP in Royston, England. © 2023 CMP. All rights reserved. Reposted with permission of Lexology.


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