Management style increasingly blamed for stress-related absence, finds CIPD poll

Experts call for more investment in line managers, with few trained to spot and support mental health issues

Almost two-fifths of UK businesses have seen an increase in stress-related absences over the past year, with managers and management style increasingly being blamed, a CIPD survey has found.

The “worrying increase” in management style as a cause of workplace stress is a sign businesses need to invest in training and supporting managers, the report said, as well as focus on what organisations can do to prevent all forms of absence.

In its latest Health and Wellbeing at Work report, which surveyed 1,078 people professionals, CIPD and Simplyhealth found 37 per cent of businesses had seen stress-related absence increase last year.

The majority of respondents said heavy workloads (62 per cent) were to blame – a problem they frequently attributed to managers – while 43 per cent said management style was a direct cause of stress, up from 32 per cent the previous year.

Rachel Suff, senior policy advisor at the CIPD, said it was important not to blame managers, but to recognise the gap between the training businesses provided and the expectations placed on managers.

“[We have to] question the lack of investment, training and ongoing support and recognition for managers in supporting people’s health and wellbeing, because they play a really important role on a day-to-day basis,” she said, adding that people management was too often “bolted on” to the role of line managers.

“So much of management now is devolved down the line. They really need to know what the policies are, how to signpost for help if they’re ill, and how to make a reasonable adjustment for somebody.”

The survey found just 50 per cent of organisations trained line managers to manage stress, while 37 per cent trained them to spot the warning signs of presenteeism, and 40 per cent to support employees with mental ill health.

With numbers like this, Suff said, it was no surprise that levels of confidence from HR professionals in their line managers was low.

Only 30 per cent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed managers were confident to have sensitive discussions and signpost staff to other sources if they needed help, and just 18 per cent said they agreed or strongly agreed line managers were confident and competent to spot the early warning signs of mental ill health.

This year’s survey also found presenteeism was still high in the workforce, with 83 per cent of respondents having observed it and 25 per cent saying the problem has worsened, while almost two-thirds (63 per cent) had seen incidents of leavism, where employees use holiday time to catch up on work.

In all, two-fifths (40 per cent) of organisations reported having a standalone wellbeing policy, the same proportion as last year. 

Suff said the role of HR professionals was to convince senior leaders to take health and wellbeing seriously, train and support line managers and ensure there were frameworks in place to support employees when they were ill, as well as creating a workplace environment that helped prevent illness.

“Make sure you know what the causes of stress are in your workplace. Do an audit, do a survey, get to grips with the state of people’s health and wellbeing in your organisation and put in place the right kind of measures to not only support people when they are ill but to try and prevent these risks in the first place,” she added.