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Signs of wellbeing washing, as sickness absence soars

Winckworth Sherwood’s report ‘Wellbeing Strategies: Effective in Managing Sickness Absence? Insights and Recommendations for Employers’, examines attitudes towards sickness absence, the effectiveness of existing initiatives in promoting mental health and reducing sickness absence due to mental ill-health, and whether more could be done in view of the high levels of sickness absence in the UK.
  • 86% of employers and 69% of employees surveyed agree it is more acceptable to take time off work when unwell than previously, particularly in relation to mental health issues.
  • Employers surveyed cited improved productivity as the primary reason for their wellbeing offerings, leading to concerns about employers’ authenticity and risk of “wellbeing washing”.
  • Only around a half of employers surveyed admitted that they offered their employees “good work” (55%), fair pay and reward (51%), and promoted flexible working (49%), despite both employers and employees listing these amongst the most effective factors in promoting mental health and preventing sickness absence for mental ill health.
  • Only a tiny proportion of employees (9%) and employers (14%) surveyed disagreed with the statement that too much responsibility is put on employees to improve their health and wellbeing as opposed to employers improving their work environment and culture.

86% of employers and 69% of employees surveyed agree that it is more acceptable to take time off work when unwell than previously, according to new research*.

As well as examining attitudes towards sickness absence, the report, ‘Wellbeing Strategies: Effective in Managing Sickness Absence? Insights and Recommendations for Employers’, also looks at the effectiveness of existing strategies and initiatives in promoting mental health and reducing sickness absence due to mental ill-health, and whether more could be done in view of the high levels of sickness absence in the UK.

A majority (84%) of employers surveyed believe their wellbeing strategy, initiatives or benefits have reduced levels of sickness absence.  Although on the face of it this statistic is positive, when employers were asked why such benefits and initiatives were being offered within their organisation, employers surveyed admitted the main purpose was not to reduce sickness absence, but to improve productivity.

What’s more, the report highlights that employers (68%) and employees (67%) surveyed agree there is too much responsibility on employees to improve their health and wellbeing, as opposed to organisations improving their work environment and culture. Only 9% of employees and 14% of employers surveyed disagreed with this.

Employers and employees surveyed were predominantly aligned on the most effective factors in promoting mental health and preventing sickness absence for mental ill-health: “Good work” (autonomy, job satisfaction, work-life balance); fair pay and reward; and promotion of flexible working (e.g. remote working, condensed hours).

However, these results highlight yet another gap between employers’ beliefs and actions, with only around a half of employers surveyed admitting that they offered their employees fair pay and reward, “good work” and promoted flexible working.

Combined, these findings are clear indicators that “wellbeing washing” is occurring within organisations with employers publicly embracing the importance of wellbeing and implementation of wellbeing initiatives, while not genuinely supporting employees and ensuring a healthy working environment.

With the CIPD and ONS reporting the highest sickness absence rate in a decade, the report highlighted that employers could be even more effective in genuinely promoting wellbeing in the workplace and reducing sickness absence levels, if employers did not just offer sticking plasters such as free fruit and yoga classes, and instead looked at cultural change.

Report co-author Louise Lawrence, Partner in the Employment team at Winckworth Sherwood, said: “Following the CIPD and ONS both reporting that sickness absence has risen to some of the highest levels seen in over a decade, we wanted to understand the factors that could be impacting these figures.

“In particular, we wanted to determine whether “wellbeing washing” was taking place across organisations, whereby employers claim to prioritise wellbeing but are falling short when it comes to implementing meaningful wellbeing strategies.

“While employees and employers are aligned on several issues, some results highlighted a significant disconnect between employers’ and employees’ priorities and goals. Our recommendations aim to provide the tools and knowledge to employers for them to help bridge this gap.”

Report co-author, Harriet Calver, Senior Associate at Winckworth Sherwood, added: “In our latest report, we take a deep dive into the key factors for promoting wellbeing in the workplace, and how these are impacting sickness absence rates.  While it is positive to see that both employers and employees agree that it is more acceptable to take time off work when unwell, particularly in relation to mental health issues, the findings reveal that too much onus remains on employees to manage their wellbeing and mental health.

“As such, we believe workplaces could be even more effective in promoting a healthier culture and preventing sickness absence for mental ill-health if employers re-considered the priorities for their wellbeing strategies and offerings; identified the specific challenges to wellbeing in their organisation; critically evaluated the success of their strategy; and adapted it accordingly.”

 

wslaw.co.uk/publication/wellbeing-strategies-effective-in-managing-sickness-absence/

*Research was commissioned by Winckworth Sherwood, with Censuswide of 250 senior HR leaders (fieldwork was undertaken between 30 April to 7 May 2024) and 1,002 employees (fieldwork was also undertaken between 30 April to 3 May 2024). The survey was carried out online. The respondents work for organisations from a wide range of sectors that range in size from 1 to over 500 employees.

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