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How can we build healthy workplaces?

Fairness, Inclusion & Respect, FIR, Wellbeing

Published 28th Sep 21 - by saragouveia

A reflection from CIPD’s Health and Wellbeing at work survey


Looking after people’s health and wellbeing at work is central to the CIPD’s purpose to champion better work and working lives. CIPD’s annual Health and wellbeing at work survey has been running for over 20 years and the findings help to inspire change and achieve this mission in organisations.

We’re now over 18 months into this global pandemic. The threat to people’s physical health from COVID-19 was immediate and obvious but the challenges are also psychological, which came through strongly in the survey. Over two-fifths (42%) of HR professionals said they were ‘extremely concerned’ about the impact of the pandemic on people’s mental health and a further two-fifths (40%) said ‘moderately concerned’.

It’s encouraging that most organisations have been acting on that concern, with their top action in response to the pandemic being ‘more focus on looking after people’s mental health’. However, only just over half [54%] believe they have been effective in managing the mental health risks from COVID-19, which begs the question: why not?

The research suggests a number of areas where many employers could focus more attention to improve people’s health and wellbeing. First, more organisations need to adopt a systematic approach to identifying and managing the main risks to people’s health – both physical and psychological. This should include taking action to prevent ill health where possible, so it was very encouraging that this was the theme of the Inspiring Change Conference in June, delivered through the Fairness, inclusion and Respect Programme.

Organisations also need to be aware of the underlying factors that are influencing people’s wellbeing and driving behaviour. For example, our survey findings show that the main cause of stress at work is unmanageable workloads, and so organisations need to think about fundamental issues like allocation of work, deadlines, targets and objectives to make sure they are realistic.

The survey also reported high levels of presenteeism [people working when unwell] observed by HR professionals, so more action is needed to tackle this unhealthy working practice. People need to have healthy routines where they can balance work and personal responsibilities and switch off from work, as well as taking time off to recover when they’re ill.

‘Management style’ is the second main cause of stress which highlights how much influence line managers have on wellbeing, which can be detrimental if they are not equipped to go about their role in a supportive and effective way. Line managers can’t be expected to act as counsellors or medical experts but they should build relationships with people that are based on trust, where individuals can have sensitive and genuine conversations about work and health, and ask for any workplace adjustments or flexibility. Therefore, they need to have a good understanding of what health and wellbeing support is available in the organisation and how to signpost people to expert sources of help like an employee assistance programme or occupational health when needed.

Disappointingly, the increasing expectation on line managers to support people’s wellbeing isn’t always matched by the level of investment most receive in terms of training, ongoing guidance and support. Well under half of organisations (43%) have trained managers to support people with mental ill health, for example. Therefore it’s not surprising that there are low levels of confidence on the part of HR professionals in the capability of line managers: 38% think managers can have sensitive discussions and signpost to more specialist sources of help and 31% think they can spot the early warning signs of mental ill health.

People’s health and wellbeing has been slowly creeping up the corporate agenda over the past few years. This year shows a significant increase in the proportion of organisations reporting it’s on senior leaders’ agendas, with three in four survey participants saying this is the case. This isn’t surprising because the pandemic has made health and wellbeing a critical business continuity issue. The CIPD is keen to make sure it remains a priority going forward.

Key CIPD Resources:

  1. CIPD/Simplyhealth: Health and wellbeing at work survey report 2021
  2. Practical guidance for managers on preventing and reducing stress at work
  3. Resources to support line managers in their people management approach
  4. CIPD/Mind: People Managers’ Guide to Mental Health