Record numbers off work due to long-term sickness

The latest data is in, and it makes bleak reading for workers and employers alike.

A record number of people in the UK are off work due to a long-term illness – rising 438,000 between January and March this year alone. That’s now 2.55 million people who aren’t looking for employment because of sickness.

The macroeconomic view is that increasingly high levels of those economically inactive, combined with the high number of worker shortages across industries, is stunting growth.

And on the organisational level, dealing with an increasing number of longer-term sicknesses within the workforce is proving a strain too, as ongoing recruitment, retention and inflationary issues continue to bite.

What’s causing an increase in health-related absences?

There are a range of factors that are supporting a rise in long-term, sickness-related economic inactivity within the UK.

Ongoing COVID-19 issues, including long-Covid, continue to affect over 1.5m in the UK alone. The data is particularly stark in the US where 1.6 million former full-time workers have lost their jobs because of it. The pandemic’s impact on the NHS and an increasing waiting list for treatment are also major factors.

However, the great contributor to the rise in the number of those not working is mental health-related, including anxiety and, most notably, burnout.

In the NHS, for example, almost 7% of the workforce is off sick, and 30% of that number are mental health related. Burnout alone has been responsible for eight million sick days over the last half-decade.

And research from Reward Gateway suggests as many as four in five workers are experiencing burnout to some degree, with half saying they regularly feel overwhelmed – particularly during a cost of living crisis.

Why is employee burnout on the rise?

Outside pressures are one of the key drivers of the recent rise in burnout. The same study from Reward Gateway unearthed that younger employees are entering the workforce with a higher baseline level of stress than older colleagues. Money and housing worries, inflation, and the fallout from the pandemic are just some key factors.

And this isn’t a UK-only issue. Burnout is on the rise worldwide, and Gen Z, millennials and women are the most stressed out at work. Data from Future Forum suggests a staggering 42% of US and UK workers are burnt out – an all-time high.

The workplace itself is a major contributor to those feelings of burnout too, though there’s conflicting evidence to support what specific factors are at play.

For example, Reward Gateway’s analysis concludes that over half of Gen Z staff feel lonely and isolated and are struggling to adapt to the new work-from-home era.

Conversely, Future Forum’s research highlights how employees who are dissatisfied with their level of flexibility at work are 43% more likely to feel burnt out.

High job demands, increasing workloads due to staff shortages, lack of autonomy, long hours and inadequate resources to do the job all continue to be major factors too.

HR’s role in combatting burnout

The methods at an organisation’s disposal to tackle the issue of burnout and long-term absence head-on are mostly sat within HR’s strategic arsenal of tools.

A keen focus on wellbeing, both physical and mental, is a long-term effort that requires investment across different programmes… but can deliver huge returns on those investments.

In fact, the leadership team at Johnson & Johnson found that strategic investments in their peoples’ social, mental and physical health paid off at a rate of $2.71 for every dollar spent in healthcare costs alone.

Different areas of focus to support wellbeing often include:

Mental health apps

Training in-house mental health first aiders Offering more flexibility in hours and location Providing finance support, either through increased pay, staff loan schemes or money counselling Investing in staff’s physical health through gym passes and other fitness-focused benefits Introduce workplace mentor schemes Improve management visibility and availability Offering and visibly supporting taking mental health sick days Another major tool in the fight against burnout is engagement which has a reciprocal relationship with mental health.

Research shows how organisations that invest in their employees’ health enjoy higher engagement, including increased adaptability, better job performance score from line managers, and even 59% less likelihood of quitting their job within the next 12 months.

Meanwhile, research from Gallup has indicated that already-engaged employees can experience even higher performance scores when physical wellness programmes are introduced.

However, already low levels of employee engagement can negatively influence mental health factors, including feelings of isolation, lack of support, stress and burnout too.

The two working hand in hand is key, with Gallup finding that engaged employees with a high level of wellbeing suffer almost zero workplace burnout.

How technology can support HR’s cause

Wellbeing is a huge challenge that HR is tasked with solving, but the right technology can really help in their efforts.

Working to re-integrate employees back into the workforce and offering flexible/remote working options are all supported by having the right HR systems in place to effectively manage employee communications, time sheets and other important factors.

Recognition and reward programs are extremely effective at supporting longer-term engagement too, whilst employee feedback platforms are key to understanding how your people are feeling.

HR software (with a little help from AI) is a powerful tool for identifying employee trends, including absenteeism, increased churn rates in specific divisions, and even changes to how regularly new starters are leaving within the first 12-18 months – all symptoms of a workplace that’s suffering from burnout, wellbeing and engagement issues.

This blog was written by Phase 3, they are an exhibitor on the HRTech247 Consulting & Advisory Partner floor of the Partners Hall. You can visit their virtual space here