Our popular HR commentator, Steve Herbert, considers the issue of rising sickness absence and how HR leaders can best support employees

The latest employee absence figures were published by the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development (CIPD) this week, and the findings make sobering reading for Human Resources (HR) experts.

The CIPD revealed that absence rates per employee, per year, have increased by 2 full days since the last full year (2019) prior to the pandemic period.  This increase is the first rise in more than a decade, but is unlikely to be a surprise to anyone involved in people management issues.

Wellbeing challenges

For the challenges to the health and wellbeing of British workers have been magnified by the events of the last few years, and now all three sides of the employee wellbeing “triangle” are under simultaneous and sustained pressure.  To explain:


  • Mental Health

Case numbers of people with poor mental health were rising pre-pandemic, and many people have emerged from the pandemic in a far more fragile mental state than at the start.

Home working (whilst very good for many) may also be adding to isolation problems, whilst also not allowing employers to spot potential issues and offer support at an early stage.

  • Physical Health

Again, the pandemic is at least partially to blame. Many conditions went untreated during the pandemic leading to increased absence at a later date, and the British Medical Association (BMA) still believe there is an “unseen” waiting list yet to be uncovered from the pandemic years.

But that is not the only issue. Understanding and treating Long Covid conditions remains a real challenge, and COVID-19 itself results in more people having to take time off (even if only to protect others).

It should also be noted that COVID is now effectively endemic in the UK population.  It follows that with both Flu and COVID in simultaneous circulation, the “seasonal” infectious illness risks have doubled for us all.


  • Financial Health

The cost-of-living and cost-of-borrowing crises are both still in play, creating new stresses for many employees.

As I have explored many times in my Employer News articles financial health problems don’t always happen in isolation, and can often lead to mental and physical health problems as well.


Other pressures?

So, with pressures building on aspects of individual wellbeing, the state-funded safety net of support and treatments needs to be working well.  And sadly, that is currently very far from the case.

As I explored in this item last month, the fragile state of the National Health Service (NHS) is doubtless also playing a part in increased employee absence rates.

The challenges to the NHS are not uniform across the four devolved nations of the UK, but the key items include (but are not limited to) any or all of the following:

  • Record waiting lists
  • Ongoing social care problems
  • A huge number of staff vacancies
  • Workforce industrial action and strikes
  • GP waiting times
  • Limited access to dental care

That’s a fairly frightening list in itself, yet there are now two new challenges to also be considered.



The Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC) crisis in public buildings will doubtless also pose problems for many NHS buildings constructed in the second half of the 20th century.  Indeed this story from Sky News highlights how some key hospital buildings are already becoming unavailable whilst this issue persists.



And in England, there is now a genuine – and fast-growing – problem around accessing community chemists.

National chains such as Boots and Lloyds have implemented (and/or announced) significant numbers of closures to community pharmacies in recent years, and many local independents are also struggling to survive.

Whilst pharmacies remain outside of the NHS, they do form an integral part of the UK’s NHS services, they still often act as the front door for many less urgent queries (taking pressure off so many other areas of the healthcare system).  It follows that the loss of so many local chemists will create another unwelcome barrier to workers seeking support for their health and wellbeing concerns.


The employer’s response?

The reality is that there are far more health and wellbeing pressures – and far less state support available – for most workers in 2023 than there were in 2019.

That represents a toxic mix that may lead to even greater employee absence in future years unless employers take the initiative and better support their employees by other means, and in particular via better utilisation of – and improvements to – their employee benefits provision.

This is something I looked at for Employer News back in January – and this article may provide employers with a simple starting point and structure to commence such a review of their support offerings.


Steve Herbert is Wellbeing & Benefits Director at Partners&