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How public sector employers can get maximum impact from employee wellbeing activity

Dr Jill Miller, research adviser at the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development, looks at how the public sector is addressing employee wellbeing activity.

The public sector are ahead of the game in promoting health and wellbeing at work, but as the sector with the highest absence levels, how can they further increase their impact? This is one of the questions arising from the latest CIPD/Simplyhealth Absence Management survey findings.

Our survey results provide summary data across the sectors enabling us to highlight particular areas that need attention, as well as areas of good practice that other sectors can learn from.

Looking first at absence levels, public sector figures are similar to last year (2016: 8.5 days per employee per year; 2015: 8.7 days). However, the private and non-profit sectors have seen decreases of 0.5 and 0.9 days respectively. The median public sector absence level is now 3.3 days higher than in the private sector.

Looking at causes of absence, notably more public sector organisations report that stress and mental ill health are in their top five causes of both short- and long-term absence. The good news is that many are realising this is a problem and taking action. Over three-quarters are taking steps to identify and reduce stress in the workplace, compared to 57% of private sector organisations. Although these figures are encouraging, there is still a way to go – 21% of the public sector organisations who said stress was in their top five causes of absence are not taking any steps to address it.

Cross-organisation learning

Cross-organisation learning is one way of spreading good practice. It’s also important to be understanding and addressing the root causes of stress-related absence in your particular organisation. Across the public sector as a whole, the most commonly reported causes of stress are workload, the amount of organisation change or restructuring, and management style. These findings are perhaps no surprise given the current operating context, but they clearly signal areas where further support is needed.

More public sector organisations this year said long working hours are the norm for them, possibly echoing the workload concern. Sixty-four per cent of respondents from this sector said this is the case compared with under half (48%) in 2015. There is a risk that working long hours becomes part of a culture rather than a one-off. It therefore needs to be addressed before it becomes part of ‘how we do things round here’ as it’s not a sustainable way of working. 

Public sector most proactive in many respects

When it comes to mental health, our survey found that the public sector is the most proactive in many respects. Over half (53%) have a policy which covers mental health, compared to just 28% of the private sector. Compared to the private and non-profit sectors, they are most likely to say their organisation is effective at supporting people with mental health problems, it actively promotes good mental wellbeing and encourages openness and awareness about mental health. One area that wasn’t reported as positively, and can be a cue for action, is how confident managers feel to have sensitive discussions with staff and signpost them to support if needed.

The public sector is also still the most proactive when it comes to health promotion and many have increased their focus on employee wellbeing over the past year, suggesting they know more action is needed. For example, two-thirds of organisations in this sector now say they have a formal wellbeing strategy, plan or programme, compared to 55% in 2015. They are also the sector most likely to agree with the statement ‘our organisation learns from the health and wellbeing problems we’ve faced and takes action’. The public sector is also most likely to have wellbeing as a formal part of someone’s remit.

Our findings tell us that public sector organisations are most likely to say absence management is a key people management priority for them, with absence levels and costs being highest. The challenge is how to maintain their proactive approach to wellbeing to help address this priority. A firm understanding of the causes of absence should inform the wellbeing approach taken, enabling the choice of initiatives to be targeted to employee need. And, finally, regular evaluation of the impact of wellbeing activity means the offering can be reviewed and improved.

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