Sickness absence rates in the UK have risen to a 10-year high, with employees now averaging 7.8 days off in the past year, compared to the pre-pandemic rate of 5.8 days. These figures are revealed in a comprehensive survey conducted by the CIPD and Simplyhealth which sheds light on the growing issue of absenteeism in the UK workplace.

Stress As A Leading Cause

The study identifies stress as a significant factor contributing to absences, with a staggering 76% of respondents reporting stress-related absences in their organisations over the past year.  The survey showed that mental health issues played a role in both short-term absences (39%) and long-term absences (63%).

We spoke to the HR & People Experts on the Connect Three team to dig deeper into why this might be happening and what businesses could do to support their teams.

1. Long Hours in Unhappy Workplaces

Colin Lamb, our Founder and Chief Explorer, believes the new ways that we are working is a cause of employee burnout and absenteeism:

“We are now operating in a more complex working environment where we are working physically, virtually, and hybrid. This increased complexity is more demanding on people.” He says.

Susan McRoberts echoes his concerns: “One of the biggest challenges in our new way of working is that there is no 'downtime'.  Previously, if you worked longer hours your manager would encourage you to take the time back, that's more difficult to do now.”

So how do we help to combat this predilection to overwork that people are facing?  Colin is passionate that it is the business’s responsibility to reduce overwork, wither by changing how we operate, or taking advantage of digital technologies. He continues; “Organisations need to do more to support their teams with a strong wellbeing strategy including financial, social, physical focus areas.”

2. Understaffed and Overworked

The report cited Heavy workloads as the primary cause of stress-related absences at 67%, but what is causing the increase in pressure on employees? Yvonne Anderson works closely with a number of our high-growth clients, and she believes the workload could be down to the imbalance she is seeing between many companies’ growth aspirations and the workforce available to meet these demands.

She says: “I’m seeing companies that are focused on growth, but do not have the people to deliver the extra work that we are demanding.  We are seeing people leaving and others having to pick up their work, while recruitment strategies fail.”

The solution is not to shy away from growth, however.  Yvonne believes that through better resource planning and changing approaches to recruiting, businesses can tackle heavy workloads.  “Rather than waiting for the ideal candidate, businesses should focus on training and development, attraction and retention; on improving working environments for the people they have, and attracting the people they need.”

3. Poor Management

As the report highlighted, Poor Management Styles accounted for 37% of stress-related absences, which is certainly something that our explorer Teresa Robertson agrees with.  “Poor Management style is always a major contributor to employee stress,” she says, “whether it is caused by company culture, or a lack of training for their managers, it is always a factor.”  Like Yvonne, Teresa highlights the importance of investing in learning and development to support and upskill managers in their roles, and how better management is absolutely vital in reducing stress in the workplace.

4. Poor Management of Absence

As well as solving the causes, Susan Crawford believes that more focus is needed on how companies are managing absences, something she is passionate about solving. 

She says, “Many managers are not equipped to manage absence, especially absence linked to mental wellbeing.  Poor management of absence in the first place almost endorses people being off, and puts more pressure on others in the teams.  This can lead to others burning out, getting frustrated, and even having to take time off too.  More has to be done to equip our managers with how to manage absence more effectively.” 

Is Stress Really on The Increase?

The rate of absences may be increasing, but we could question whether stress as the leading cause has increased as dramatically as the report suggests.  Is it that more that people are more willing to acknowledge mental health as a reason for their absences rather than masking it behind other explanations?

Vicky O’Connor believes this could be the case.  She has seen a positive shift in attitudes towards mental health in the workplace. “There has been a big change in how mental health is viewed at work.  It's become more acceptable to talk about it since the pandemic, and acknowledge it as the reason for health and performance issues.”

There is No Quick Fix

Vicky also points out that since there's often no quick fix for the issues people face at work, they can have a prolonged impact on overall wellness and contribute to stress-related illnesses.

She says; “Mental health is a huge area with so many moving parts, which is one reason that many managers and workplaces are still not well educated around and don't know how to deal with it appropriately.  We need to see a focus on supporting people as individuals, and being flexible within the boundaries of policy and practice to support people back to work.”

If you are concerned about absences in your workplace, get in touch with our HR team.  We can offer coaching and support to help you to prioritise the health and happiness of your teams, without compromising on your organisation’s growth and sustainable future.