UK workers are now taking more sick days than at any other point in the last decade. According to new research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), the average number of sick days per employee per year now stands at 7.8, which is a full two days more than the same survey previously recorded in 2019.  

As you might expect, COVID-19 is still impacting this figure, but it doesn’t account for the total increase. In fact, the data shows that an astonishing 76% of reported sick leave absences are now attributed to stress. 

With the UK economy losing billions each year as a direct result of absenteeism, businesses simply cannot afford to ignore the impact of stress. 

Here we look at the reasons behind the sharp increase in employee stress levels, and explore the approaches that businesses can take to address this growing problem.

Of course, workplace stress is not a new phenomenon. But over the last few years we’ve seen a much greater awareness of mental health issues, and in response, many businesses have adopted new health and wellbeing strategies to support their employees. 

However, the CIPD report also highlights a curious ‘workplace wellbeing paradox’. Despite the increased number of health and wellbeing services, employees are reporting more mental health issues, rather than less. Clearly, the focus on good mental health is a welcome change, but why aren’t we seeing a reduction in stress as a result? 

It could be argued that more people are now aware of their own mental health needs, and are seeking help for problems at an earlier stage, leading to an increase in reported cases of stress. 

We also have to consider the wider context. Many employees are returning to the workplace, often facing a daily commute and additional childcare challenges, after an extended period of working from home. And of course, people are under huge financial pressure due to the cost-of-living crisis. 

In addition to this, businesses are facing challenges of their own, with rising costs, Brexit problems and global supplier issues all taking their toll. As a result, business leaders are increasingly focused on adapting and keeping afloat, rather than prioritising health and wellbeing issues.

With all of that in mind, it’s hardly surprising that stress is at an all-time high, and that sick days have increased in response. 

So as an employer, how can you tackle this rise in stress-related absence?

To maximise the effectiveness of health and wellbeing provisions and address the workplace wellbeing paradox, companies need to develop systemic and preventative health and wellbeing strategies that are supported by the most senior levels of leadership.

These strategies need to focus on:

  • Building a listening culture: Having proper check-ins with employees to ensure they feel supported; creating open, confidential channels of communication, and asking staff what initiatives they would benefit from most, to support uptake.
  • Using technology to support workloads: With workload management  cited as the most common cause of stress-related absence, you should look at new resourcing tools and technologies to combat this. It’s also helpful to explore whether new approaches to task management could be adopted to help alleviate stress.
  • Upskilling line managers: Line managers are perceived by HR professionals as having the biggest buy-in to employee wellbeing. Conversely, a lack of line manager skills and confidence to support mental health can be the biggest barrier to employee wellbeing, according to the CIPD’s Health and Wellbeing at Work report.
  • Providing flexibility: Acknowledging your people’s life-cycle stages and adapting to their personal circumstances is key.
  • Ensuring autonomy: A perceived lack of control is a key factor in stress-related sick leave. Ensuring your employees feel trusted to do their jobs well, with support available, will directly impact motivation, performance and retention.
  • Achieving buy-in across the business: Everyone needs to buy into your strategy – and your employees will be quick to notice if this isn’t achieved. Ensure your wellbeing strategies are linked to your strategic ambitions, performance and purpose, as this will encourage buy-in from leaders, middle management and employees. This can also support your EVP strategy for potential recruits.
  • Avoiding ‘wellbeing washing’: If you’re making statements about supporting wellbeing without tackling the root causes of stress, employee frustration will spread. Make sure you’re always open and transparent about what you’re doing to tackle stress-related issues in your organisation, and clearly communicate this to your employees.

Measure your employee experience

There’s a lot to tackle here – and it’s important to see this as a long-term plan that will help you make incremental improvements over time.

However, if you’re leading the employee wellbeing charge, how do you know whether you’re getting it right or wrong?

Working with employee experience experts who can help measure your progress can certainly put you on the right path. For example, at ENGAGE, we use our Burnout Risk Indicator to predict the likelihood of senior executives developing burnout, and show the associated impact on performance, engagement and retention. We then work alongside you to create a tailored approach to tackle this.

By measuring with wellbeing and stress in mind you can identify and focus on the approaches that are working most effectively. With a new stress epidemic looming, and many businesses suffering as a consequence, tackling the root causes of stress has never been so important.

If you need support to find the right approach to employee engagement, health and wellbeing, get in touch with the ENGAGE team for a discussion on how we can help.