Research shows shift in attitudes towards sickness absence and need for improved wellbeing strategies

Winckworth Sherwood research reveals increased acceptance of taking time off when unwell and calls for improved workplace wellbeing strategies to reduce sickness absence.
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New research commissioned by Winckworth Sherwood, a leading UK law firm, reveals that 86% of employers and 69% of employees now find it more acceptable to take time off work when unwell compared to previously. The report, “Wellbeing Strategies: Effective in Managing Sickness Absence? Insights and Recommendations for Employers,” also examines the effectiveness of existing strategies in promoting mental health and reducing sickness absence due to mental ill-health.

The majority of employers (84%) believe their wellbeing initiatives have reduced sickness absence. However, when asked about the purpose of these initiatives, most employers admitted they were primarily aimed at improving productivity rather than reducing sickness absence. Additionally, 68% of employers and 67% of employees feel there is too much responsibility on employees to improve their health and wellbeing, instead of organisations improving the work environment and culture.

Employers and employees largely agree on the most effective factors in promoting mental health and preventing sickness absence: “Good work” (autonomy, job satisfaction, work-life balance), fair pay and reward, and promotion of flexible working. Despite this, only about half of the employers surveyed offer these benefits.

The findings suggest that “wellbeing washing” is prevalent, with employers publicly supporting wellbeing initiatives but not genuinely ensuring a healthy working environment. With sickness absence rates at their highest in a decade, the report emphasizes the need for cultural change rather than superficial solutions like free fruit and yoga classes.

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.”

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.”

Bryan Hay

Bryan Hay is the Associate Editor of Workplace Journal

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