The annual survey finds increased boardroom attention to health and wellbeing but many of the usual problems remain.

The CIPD/Simplyhealth Health and Wellbeing survey is well known as a useful annual benchmark for how employers are managing the health and wellbeing of employees in the workplace. This year, of course, the circumstances that businesses and individuals have found themselves in have been very different from usual, but many of the issues we have seen in recent years persist. The impact of the pandemic has also resulted in it being impossible to calculate a valid average sickness absence rate per employee - usually the headline figure of the survey.

This year's survey, which was undertaken at the end of 2020 with 668 HR professionals contributing, shows that both presenteeism (attending work while unwell) and leavism (working outside contracted hours or while on holiday) remain a significant issue for employers. 75% of organisations witnessed presenteeism in employees attending the workplace, and that increased to 77% for organisations who had employees working from home. While many organisations are taking steps to address these issues, 40% of respondents indicated that their organisation was not yet taking any action. Management of both presenteeism and leavism is made more complicated by homeworking, where the line between working and private time can easily become blurred.

In the last year we have seen significantly increased coverage, not just in HR publications but also in the mainstream press, of the need to support employee's mental health. This may have contributed to a significant fall in the number of organisations that describe their approach to dealing with health and wellbeing as being reactive rather than proactive, and a rise (although smaller) in the number of organisations who have a formal wellbeing strategy. Mental health remains the most common focus of wellbeing activities.

75% of respondents indicated that wellbeing was on senior leader's agendas and there has also been a 9% increase in the number of line managers who have bought into the importance of wellbeing. As in previous years, line managers were found to play a pivotal role in an effective wellbeing programme but there are still not enough organisations providing training to enable managers to support their employees.

Although the survey doesn't include an average absence rate this year, it does refer to the recent ONS statistics which reported that the UK sickness absence rate fell to 1.8% in 2020, the lowest recorded since 1995. While Covid-19 has accounted for 14% of all sickness absences since April 2020, it appears that pandemic related measures such as increased home working and social distancing have reduced other causes of absence allowing the overall decrease in the absence rate.

Mental ill health continues to be one of the main causes of both short term and long term absences, as do musculoskeletal disorders. In this year's survey, 39% of organisations include Covid-19 among their top three causes of short term absence and 16% percent among their top three causes of long-term absence.

Stress (which is categorised separately from mental ill health) is another significant cause of both long and short term absence. The most common causes of this remain workload and bad management - two things that employers can act to improve. Workload is also identified as a key contributor to presenteeism.

Areas where organisations need to improve include supporting financial wellbeing and improving practices for managing people with disabilities and long term health conditions. The latter has particular resonance given the number of people affected by long covid - a number put at 1.1 million in the four week period ending on 6 March 2021 according to the ONS.

The conclusions of the survey highlight the importance of employers taking a strategic and holistic approach to health, safety and wellbeing. Most organisations reported taking additional measures to support employee health and wellbeing in response to Covid-19. Hopefully this will be something of a watershed moment and wellbeing will still continue to receive increased attention in the boardroom even once the pandemic recedes.