Stress-related absence surge caused by poor management

?More training is needed to help managers better support staff wellbeing, research has found

Nearly two-fifths of UK businesses (37%) have seen an increase in stress-related absence over the past year, with heavy workloads and poor management to blame, according to a new report from the CIPD and Simplyhealth.

The annual Health and Well-Being at Work study, which surveyed 1,078 HR and L&D professionals, showed that stress is a growing problem in UK workplaces.

Heavy workloads was found to be the top cause of stress-related absence (62%). The second biggest factor was management style, which was cited as an issue by 43%, up from 32% the previous year. This rise highlights the need for businesses to invest in management training, as well as wider wellbeing initiatives, the research said.

It also uncovered evidence of unhealthy workplace trends linked to stress. More than four-fifths (83%) of respondents said they have observed ‘presenteeism’ (going to work when ill) in their organisation and a quarter (25%) said the problem had gotten worse since the previous year.

Nearly two-thirds (63%) had observed ‘leaveism’ (such as using holiday time to do work), and more than half (55%) said their organisation hasn’t taken any steps to discourage it.

These results come despite the report recording the lowest number of average sick days (5.9 per employee per year) in its 19-year history.

“Rates of presenteeism and leaveism, which are both linked to stress, remain stubbornly high. Employers have a responsibility to tackle these bad habits. They must also realise that staff are not going to perform at their best if they are working when ill or using up holiday to work rather than recharge,” said Rachel Suff, senior employment relations advisor at the CIPD.

The report revealed that many managers aren’t receiving the training they need to spot and help manage these unhealthy working practices. Only 50% of managers have undergone training to support their staff to better manage stress, and among the minority of organisations taking action to tackle leaveism and presenteeism, just 37% of managers have been trained to spot the warning signs of either.

The CIPD warned that the findings represent a serious failure by senior leaders, given that managers play a vital role in supporting staff with their health and wellbeing. The research showed that, aside from not receiving adequate training or guidance, many senior leaders haven’t done enough to get managers to buy into the importance of wellbeing. Only half (50%) of respondents said this is true of managers, raising questions about how fairly and consistently they can implement their organisation’s health and wellbeing policies in their own teams.

Furthermore, fewer than a third (32%) said that senior leaders encourage a focus on mental wellbeing through their actions and behaviours.

Suff said that poor training is to blame for managers' failure to support staff. “Managers should be helping to alleviate stress among their staff not contributing to it. But too many managers are being set up to fail because they haven’t received adequate training, despite them often being the first person employees will turn to when they have a problem," she said.

“It’s vital that businesses recognise the importance of wellbeing initiatives and training for line managers. Senior leaders should work with their HR experts to ensure there is sufficient training and an overall culture of wellbeing in their workplaces.”

Strong leadership and an open culture both help improve employee wellbeing added Pam Whelan, director of corporate at Simplyhealth. “People are an organisation’s greatest asset so it is crucial that senior leaders recognise the importance of investing in their employees. Line managers play a frontline role and are often best placed to support with health and wellbeing, but this year’s report shows there is more work to be done to better support them with training and guidance,” she said.

“In addition, there are further steps organisations can take to help reduce stress-related absence and encourage a preventative approach. Fostering a culture where employees feel they can seek support when they need it is key, and initiatives such as offering an employee assistance programme and flexible working arrangements can help improve an employee’s work/life balance.”

In response to the report’s findings the CIPD is calling for senior leaders to prioritise wellness at work, and for greater investment in training managers on this.