Wellbeing and mental health drop down the business agenda despite COVID-19 impact still felt, new report finds

Report warns health and wellbeing of employees must remain a business priority and should not be de-prioritised as a ‘nice to have’.

Wellbeing and mental health are beginning to slip down the business agenda, a new report from the CIPD and Simplyhealth finds, despite the fact that organisations are still dealing with the impact of COVID-19.

The Health and wellbeing at work 2022 report reveals that the number of HR professionals who think that wellbeing is on the agenda of senior leaders has fallen from 75% to 70% in the past year. There has also been a drop in the proportion of HR professionals who think senior leaders encourage a focus on mental wellbeing through their actions and behaviours, falling from 48% in 2021 to 42% in 2022.

Similarly, there has been a decrease in respondents who say managers have bought into the importance of wellbeing, dropping from 67% in 2021 to 60% for 2022.

But the report notes that COVID will continue to impact employees for some time and needs to be factored into organisational plans, particularly with regards to effective mental health support and helping people with long COVID. If they don’t, it warns, employers run the risk of losing valuable employees at a time of severe skills shortages.

The research, which surveyed 804 UK-based HR professionals – representing more than 4.3 million employees, underlines that COVID-19 still looms large in many organisations. Two-thirds (66%) of HR professionals said they are concerned about the impact of the pandemic on employees’ mental health – and nearly a quarter (24%) of HR professionals also state COVID-related anxiety is among the top-three causes of workplace stress in their organisation.

Rachel Suff, senior employment relations adviser at the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development, said:

“Not only is COVID still with us, but it has also exacerbated existing health and wellbeing challenges and created new ones, like long COVID. So, while the drop may be small at this point, it’s still a concern that some senior leaders are starting to pay less attention to health and wellbeing – particularly when the last two years have proven how important it is to organisational resilience.

“Senior leaders have a defining influence on their organisation’s culture and it’s in their gift to shape an environment where people feel safe to speak up about health issues and seek support.”

 The report shows that levels of stress – which organisations have long grappled with – still remain high, with 79% of respondents reporting some form of stress related absence in their organisation last year, rising to 90% for large organisations. 

Unhealthy trends linked to stress are commonplace too: 67% of respondents are aware of some form of leaveism (such as using annual leave to work) in their organisation and 81% say they have observed presenteeism (working when ill) among those working from home.

Suff continues:

“Alongside senior leaders, managers need to buy into the importance of health and wellbeing since they manage workloads and set deadlines. They are also, usually, the first port of call when someone has a concern. If they are to be a positive influence on people’s wellbeing they need the right training, support and expert guidance from HR – and need to be given enough time and space to devote to people management.” 

Angela Sherwood, Chief People Officer at Simplyhealth, commented: 

“The results of our twelfth year of doing this survey with the CIPD indicate that some organisations may have stalled a little in their development of employee health and wellbeing strategies. This may be due to new challenges that have presented themselves such as rising costs and the shortage of labour in some areas, and to the continuing fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“However, it is encouraging that most organisations are taking additional measures to support employee health and wellbeing in response to the pandemic, most commonly through providing more tailored support to address individuals’ needs, an increased focus on employees’ mental health and better support for people working from home. 

“Despite this, mental health in the workplace still merits serious attention, particularly given that two-thirds of HR professionals said they are still concerned about the impact of the pandemic on employees’ mental health. Only 29% of HR respondents believe they are confident and competent to spot the early warning signs of mental ill health. There remains more to do in workplace policy-making to ensure that everyone gets the health support they need. Initiatives like EAPs, mental health first aid programmes and resilience workshops can all contribute to a well-rounded health and wellbeing approach.

“As the health landscape continues to evolve, health and wellbeing strategies need to adapt to provide the holistic, relevant and fast access to healthcare people need, which in turn will not only benefit the health of the workforce but also enhance the productivity of businesses themselves.”