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Employers urged to address high levels of people working when unwell as COVID-19 pandemic heightens an ‘always on’ work culture

Rachel Suff, Senior Policy Adviser, Employment Relations at the CIPD

Unhealthy working habits proving hard to break as new survey finds most employers have seen presenteeism and leaveism in staff over the last year 

Despite the sharp increase in homeworking and perceived flexibility benefits as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, more than three quarters (77%) of employers have observed ‘presenteeism’ – people working when unwell – in employees who are working from home in the last year. This is slightly higher than levels of presenteeism in employees attending the workplace (75%), according to the latest CIPD/Simplyhealth Health and Wellbeing at Work survey report. 

The survey of 668 people professionals, representing 2.7 million employees, also found ’leaveism’ – working outside of contracted hours or using annual leave to work or when ill – is an issue, with seven in ten (70%) employers observing this unhealthy behaviour over the same period. While more organisations are taking steps to address these issues compared with last year, over two-fifths experiencing presenteeism (43%) and leaveism (47%) aren’t taking any action. 

The findings suggest that many organisations haven’t been taking effective action to combat the risks of an ‘always on’ culture during the pandemic. Boundaries between work and home life have become increasingly blurred for many people working from home for example, making it difficult for people to switch off. For those attending workplaces, presenteeism and leaveism are also very real issues of concern. 

The CIPD/Simplyhealth research found that unmanageable workloads is by far the top cause of work-related stress (59% of respondents), which could contribute to presenteeism. It’s crucial for organisations to address any issues that could be creating a culture where staff feel they are expected to work when ill or feel it’s the only way they can stay on top of their workload. Employers need to ensure that line managers are aware of the risks of presenteeism and being ‘always on’. Managers should assess individual and team workloads to make sure they are reasonable, set clear expectations about taking breaks, and act as good role models for healthy working practices, such as taking time off when sick. 

Rachel Suff, Senior Policy Adviser, Employment Relations at the CIPD, comments:

“The Covid-19 pandemic has put a huge strain on employers and individuals. Employers should take a strategic and preventative approach to wellbeing in order to tackle work-related stress and unhealthy behaviour like presenteeism and leaveism and this must be role modelled by those in senior positions. They should also recognise the important role that line managers play in supporting individuals with their health and wellbeing. Managers should be equipped with the appropriate training, support and guidance needed to do this effectively.

“Our research shows many organisations have taken steps to improve their health and wellbeing support over the last year, particularly regarding mental health support. It’s important that employers don’t lose sight of the gains they have made in supporting people’s health and wellbeing as we move through the next stages of the pandemic and beyond. Increased support over the last year must not be viewed as a sticking plaster for the situation we are currently in. Instead, employers should view health and wellbeing as a business-critical issue and build on this support for the long-term.”

Angela Sherwood, Chief People Officer at Simplyhealth, commented:

“As ways of working have changed for people everywhere, it’s reassuring to see more employers having a growing awareness and commitment to supporting employee health and wellbeing. Most organisations are placing an increased focus on mental health and tailored individual support, especially for those now working from home. The CIPD/Simplyhealth report found that over half of organisations have increased employee wellbeing support or benefits in light of the pandemic, while just over a third are focusing more on providing virtual health services. As the health landscape continues to evolve rapidly, wellbeing strategies need to adapt to provide the holistic, relevant healthcare people need and deserve.

“Embracing a preventive health model reaps rewards in building a resilient, productive workforce. Employers are well-placed to make a big difference here by driving positive behaviours such as regular health checks, taking breaks, nutritional advice and increased physical activity. Initiatives like EAPs, mental health first aid programmes and resilience workshops can also drive forward a robust, well-rounded approach that provides additional support to line managers, who in turn will then be better equipped to support their teams with their health and wellbeing.”

The vast majority (82%) of employers are concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on employees’ mental health, and most organisations are taking additional steps to improve employee health and wellbeing. The most common measures include an increased focus on mental health (84%) and more support tailored to individuals’ needs and concerns, such as flexible working (83%). 

While there is a marked improvement in employers supporting employee health and wellbeing, the report identifies key areas for improvement: 

  • Equip line managers with the right training, knowledge and skills to support people’s health effectively – only 38% of organisations are providing more line management training to support employee wellbeing following COVID-19 and just 43% train managers to support people with mental ill health (down from 51% last year).
  • Take a more strategic approach to enhance wellbeing, prevent ill health and support people when they become unwell – only half (50%) of organisations take a strategic approach to wellbeing. 
  • Increase investment in wellbeing – just a quarter (26%) report their allocated budget for wellbeing benefits has increased as a consequence of the pandemic.

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