Are we ‘pulling more sickies’ or do organisations need to focus more on ‘good work’?

Blog posts

9 Oct 2023

Zofia Bajorek

Dr Zofia Bajorek, Senior Research Fellow 

The CIPD recently released the latest analysis of its ‘Health and wellbeing at work’ data with the stand-out finding that there has been a marked increase in sickness absence in the UK. Employees (according to the CIPD data) are now averaging 7.8 days of sickness absence per year, the highest level in a decade. This was also two days more in comparison to the low levels of pre-pandemic absence that had been recorded by the CIPD in 2020. Of course, this finding must be looked at in the current context; organisations are still feeling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and over a third of organisations were reporting that COVID-19 was still in the top three causes of short-term sickness absence. But the economic turmoil, negative external worldwide events and the cost-of-living crisis are also having an impact on the mental health and wellbeing of the workforce, demonstrated by mental-ill health featuring in the top three causes of both long and short-term sickness absence.

So, should we be concerned about this rise in sickness absence, or is this a wake-up call for UK employers to ensure better support around workforce health?

To answer these questions we need to look at the key findings from the CIPD research:

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a step change in organisational focus on health and wellbeing with more organisations now reporting stand-alone wellbeing strategies. The good news is we can infer that organisations are finally understanding the operational and economic business consequences of sickness absence.  However, the research also noted that the focus on wellbeing from senior managers has waned since the height of the pandemic. 
  • More line managers are understanding the importance on focussing and prioritising wellbeing at work (67 per cent in 2023 compared to 58 per cent in 2020). However, this still means that about one third of line managers may not consider prioritise wellbeing, and we know that line managers are important in how well any wellbeing strategy is implemented, measured and evaluated.
  • Stress and mental health still required continued focus as they are still in the main causes of both long and short-term sickness absence, with 76 per cent of respondents reporting some stress related absence over the last year.  Although this is a concerning figure, there could be a rational explanation for this. For example the work of time-to-talk initiatives and mental health awareness days (which is the 10th of October this year) may be beginning to work to reduce the stigma of reporting ‘mental-health sick days’, and employees may feel more empowered to safely and accurately report their sickness absence without negative repercussions. If this is what is happening – this can only be a good thing.
  • The research cites heavy workloads as the most common cause of stress at work, followed by management style, and there has been little change in this over the last decade. This is a clarion call for HR teams and line managers. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has developed the stress management standards, and the Health and Safety at Work Act states that organisations should be undertaking a psychosocial risk assessment of the work environment every year.  But is this being enforced, especially as stress at work remains high? I was pleased to see in the CIPD’s Manifesto for Good Work that policy makers need to ensure that the HSE has the resources to meet their existing legal duty to prevent and manage stress at work – whether in workplaces or when people are working remotely.
  • When it comes to line manager competencies the research highlighted a lack of line manager skills and confidence to support workplace wellbeing, and little training or guidance given to support managers help employees stay in work. The arguments about the role of the line manager for both organisational productivity and wellbeing are well rehearsed.  Andy Haldane, Chief Economist of the Bank of England has previously said that a lot could be gained by improving managerial quality: ‘…there is a statistically significant link between the quality of firms’ management processes and practices and their productivity. And the effect is large. This suggests potentially high returns to policies which improve the quality of managers within companies.’  As I have argued previously, more needs to be done in organisations when deciding who to select as line managers , and to protect line manager wellbeing, so that those who line manage, can do so effectively.
  • The CIPD report noted that organisations are beginning to bring in interventions to help staff and their mental-health at work, most commonly EAPs and the training of mental-health first aiders. However there is still a need for employers to think about interventions that are more preventative or have an evidence base, instigating a continuous improvement/feedback loop approach to wellbeing programmes, and critically assess wellbeing outcomes. 

So where should organisational concerns be focussed?

In a previous blog, my colleague Stephen Bevan noted that aside from genuine sickness absence most research has shown that absence levels can be affected by employment characteristics that come under the ‘good work’ umbrella, such as organisational culture, job design, employee voice, fairness, job satisfaction, job security and line management capability. 

Personally, I am not too concerned about the slight rise in sickness absence, a better reporting culture, and the effects of the pandemic are key influences here. However, the lack of a stronger shift towards understanding and implementing ‘good work’ practices that can have preventative implications for employee wellbeing at work should be of concern to both policymakers and employers.

Despite the increase in the understanding and importance of having wellbeing strategies for managing sickness absence, the results in this latest report provide a more sobering reminder that more still needs to be done to engage in better management for their consistent implementation, and wellbeing practices that are preventative, evidence-based, and evaluated for their effectiveness. 

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.