Stress is a leading cause of absence – what can employers do?

Beckett Frith
Beckett Frith

Senior Content Officer, Mental Health at Work

More than three-quarters (76%) of organisations have had staff absent because of stress in the past year, according to a new report from the CIPD – indicating UK workplaces still have lots of room for improvement when it comes to the mental wellbeing of their employees.

The Health and Wellbeing at Work report, released this month, reveals that high workloads are by far the most common cause of stress-related absence, reported by 67% of those surveyed, followed by management style, cited by 37%.

A man using a laptop

Sickness absence as a whole, not just including those taken as a result of stress, have risen. The researchers found that employees are now taking 7.8 days off sick on average per year – the highest level in a decade and two days more than was recorded in 2019 (5.8 days).

While these results may look discouraging, Rachel Suff, Senior Policy Adviser at the CIPD, says these findings should not be taken as the sole measure of an organisation’s effectiveness in supporting people’s health and wellbeing.

Huge change to organisations

“First, in 2019 there was no pandemic,” she says. “Since then, external events such as COVID-19, economic turmoil, the UK’s cost-of-living crisis and war have had far-reaching impacts on people’s wellbeing. They have also brought huge change to organisations, which can have profound impacts on a workforce.”

It seems some organisations are responding to these factors, with the proportion reporting they have a stand-alone wellbeing strategy continuing to creep up since the pandemic began (2023: 53%; 2021: 50%). There has also been an increase in managers who have ‘bought into’ the importance of wellbeing, with 67% in 2023 compared with 58% in 2020.

And over three-quarters of respondents (78%), regardless of sector or size, report their organisation is taking steps to identify and/or reduce stress in the workplace.

A woman leads a group discussion.

Rachel added that organisations need to take a proactive approach to manage the risks of stress and poor mental health.

“This means implementing a systematic framework to improve mental health outcomes for people such as the Mental Health at Work Commitment, to help prevent problems from escalating where possible,” she says. “‘Management style’ continues to be a major cause of work-related stress, showing how harmful the health impact can be if organisations don’t equip line managers to perform their people management role in the right way. Employers need to ensure they are supported and trained to be an effective people manager and to look after health and wellbeing in their teams.”

Ensure line managers are supported and trained

When it comes to tackling stress in your workplace, the CIPD suggests the following:

  • Implement a systematic framework to improve mental health outcomes for people, such as the Mental Health at Work Commitment, a framework of six standards with key actions linking to practical tools and guidance. Learn more about the Commitment here.
  • Work with occupational health specialists, where available, to proactively manage the risks of stress and poor mental health. Also, see the Health and Safety Executive’s range of practical tools to help managers start a conversation with team members
  • When it comes to ‘management style’, employers should ensure line managers are supported and trained to be an effective people manager and to look after health and wellbeing in their teams.

Rachel adds that the CIPD has a hub with specially-tailored resources to support the Commitment that you may find useful. And, the joint CIPD/Mind People Managers’ guide to Mental Health at Work helps to guide organisations through the employee lifecycle to support better mental wellbeing.

A happy work environment.

The report was supported by health and dental plan providers SimplyHealth. Chief Customer Officer at SimplyHealth Claudia Nicholls highlighted the link between investment in people’s wellbeing and better performance.

“Those organisations that take a more rigorous approach to health and wellbeing tend to report more positive outcomes, she explains. “So, while the economic picture remains uncertain, we are confident that the most proactive organisations will continue to reap the rewards of a workforce whose health and wellbeing is known to be a priority.”

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