06 June 2023

Boosting the wellbeing of public sector employees

Boosting the wellbeing of public sector employees image
Alun Baker is CEO of GoodShape

It’s not a competition. But if it was, the public sector would be in a good place to win the award for ‘sector under the most pressure’. The list of crises facing all organisations – rising costs, post-pandemic disruption, post-Brexit red tape – is compounded here by the effect of funding cuts and political turmoil. And as if that wasn’t enough, public sector organisations are facing a deep staffing crisis caused not by hiring policies but employee illness. And that, in turn, is having a significant impact on productivity.

New data from GoodShape’s proprietary database of workplace absences, covering more than 750,000 employee records, shows a 16% increase in lost working days due to illness in March 2023 compared to February 2023, which cost employers an estimated £3.6bn. This is just the tip of the iceberg: lost working days due to ill health between October-December 2022 were 25% higher than in Q4 2021 (despite COVID being a big factor in 2021).

These figures make it clear that employee wellbeing should be high on public sector leaders’ agenda, given the inextricable link between output, wellbeing, and productivity. Attempts to improve productivity that miss this crucial foundation will only result in worsened mental health, faster burnout, and ultimately, poor outcomes for both the business and its people.

Wellbeing is the bedrock of productivity

So how can public sector leaders implement meaningful measures that will improve the health and wellbeing of a discontented workforce and drive real productivity improvements?

The first thing to say is that it is possible. The scale of some public sector organisations – particularly some Government departments – can make it feel difficult to even begin. But the impact of ill health can be mitigated with more measured and effective steps to improve the wellbeing of individuals and teams, before expanding to larger groups.

Before deciding on the approach to take, it’s important to remember that you need more than just a sticking plaster. Buying a dartboard for the team or giving extra time off at Christmas might sound good and win some quick political points, but these kinds of surface changes won’t tackle the root of the problem: the health issues themselves. If you don’t deal with the fundamental issues, you risk wasting investment.

A secure, scientific approach

Public sector organisations must take a holistic, evidence-based approach to wellbeing, ensuring above all that it is clinically led. Achieving that means making good use of your most valuable resource – data.

When real-time employee data is collected and understood, it can drive early interventions that identify root causes and empower leaders to make better workforce plans, in turn helping to build resilience and foster greater wellbeing. Measurement is the key to understanding what’s happening on the ground and planning the best response before the situation gets out of hand. The more you know, the more targeted your solutions can be.

It’s also worth stating that there needs to be clear guardrails in place for the collection and use of this data. We’re not talking about placing your workforce under surveillance and descending on anyone who’s having a bad few weeks health-wise.

Instead, it means working with experienced providers who can undertake careful, secure evidence gathering in a way and to an extent that employees are happy with, and then put the resulting information through sophisticated analysis. The insights this process generates will help you understand both the root causes of absence and ill health and the best next steps to take. After all, what gets measured gets done.

So, for example, if members of a particular team begin to show unusual absence levels, the appropriate HR and management staff can be alerted to look into what support might be required to help them get back on their feet. Or, if some teams within a department are showing higher levels of poor mental health than others, it might be helpful to check in on possible sources of stress and see how they can be addressed.

Leave treatment to the professionals

Over and above that, it’s important to provide access to the right clinical support – free, confidential appointments with trained nurses, for example, or access to counselling services. And it should always be straightforward for staff to request clinical support when they need it. This is particularly important when it comes to mental health. Our research with YouGov shows that over half (55%) of workers feel worried to call in sick with mental health problems, compared with less than a third (30%) when reporting a physical illness. Providing quick access to clinical support (through an app, for example) will help reduce that perceived barrier.

Ultimately, when someone’s ill, you advise them to ask for help. With the right data analysis and processes in place, public sector organisations can do the same, and ensure the right support is available when people need it. With a data-led, employee-first approach, they can stem the tide of illness-related absence, help their people get better sooner, and improve productivity.

Alun Baker is CEO of GoodShape

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