The wellbeing challenges facing HR in 2023

Many employees are seeing their bills rising, real pay falling, and their health worsening. Tina Woods, co-founder and CEO of Business for Health, outlines some of the employee wellbeing challenges HR needs to prepare for in 2023.

The past several years have delivered the greatest shift in our approach to workplace health and wellbeing in modern times, and organisations have a newfound appreciation for the value of a healthy workforce.

But, the year ahead will be marred by recession, the cost-of-living crisis, labour strikes, and the war in Ukraine. And with over 2.5 million workers out of the labour force due to long-term sickness, according to the Office for National Statistics, employers face an incredibly challenging year.

If employers are to remain committed to supporting the physical and mental health of their workers, it is crucial they prepare for the employee wellbeing challenges 2023 will bring.

Long-term ill-health

While the immediate impact of the pandemic on the UK economy was clear, the steady rise in long-term sickness among working age people continues to hamper economic growth. It's unlikely that January 2023 will see the same levels of COVID-19 cases as a year earlier, but the impact of long-term ill-health as a result of the virus and other conditons continues to threaten the ability of businesses to fill critical vacancies.

According to a recent survey from Indeed, over three quarters of UK workers (78%) have seen long COVID limit their ability to work - with 19% ceasing work altogether. The ONS recently revealed that there are 565,000 more "economically inactive" people than pre-pandemic, especially among those over 50. This has led to three-quarters of businesses struggling to fill vacancies due to a shortage of workers, according to the CBI.

The challenge for employers is how to deliver health and wellbeing policies that will support these people to return to the workforce. Businesses must be prepared to offer a clear roadmap of support to encourage those who have become economically inactive back into jobs. For older workers, that might involve offering reskilling and retraining opportunities to equip them with the tools needed to succeed.

In terms of health and wellbeing more specifically, it will be important to offer flexible working schedules that give those with caring responsibilities some autonomy. It is also important that organisations offer equal team management opportunities, so that older returning workers feel valued and have access to the same chances for career development as younger employees.

Cost-of-living crisis

The threat to the health of the nation currently posed by the cost-of-living crisis is severe, with surveys from the Royal College of Physicians indicating that over half the population have seen the rising cost of living negatively impact their health. This may manifest itself through people putting their health at risk by not turning on the heating, ignoring health issues over fears of the cost, or simply being unable to afford to travel to medical appointments. Most obviously, the threat to financial security can provoke both direct feelings of anxiety and worsening mental health.

Potential measures for employers to take might be to make more explicit provisions to guarantee fair and equal pay, offering greater pay transparency and, more directly, boosting incomes. For those not in a position to offer pay rises, a one-off "cost-of-living payment" might be an option.

Offering enhanced employee assistance programmes to limit the impact of financial concerns on the physical and mental health of the workforce must also be a priority in the coming year.

Valuable health and wellbeing strategies

One of most exciting business trends to emerge over the past few years is the growing recognition that investing in the health and wellbeing is critical to delivering long term success. As the UK loses 131 million working days a year due to ill-health, according to the CBI, businesses are witnessing how a healthy workforce means a more productive workforce. As we enter 2023 in the midst of a potential recession, it is important that this progress is not lost.

Undeniably the year ahead will be challenging from a business resilience perspective. According to the ONS, total company insolvencies in England and Wales reached their highest quarterly level since Q3 2009 last year and a survey from Bibby Financial Services indicates that four in ten (38%) of UK SME owners describe themselves as "just about breaking even".

In this landscape, employers committed to investing in strengthening the health and wellbeing of their workforce will have to be far more strategic and focus on the actions most likely to deliver value. This is why Business for Health, in partnership with CBI, launched a new Work Health Index to benchmark business' health provisions and help them to understand where there is room for critical improvement and investment.

The fact is that policies that contribute to improved workforce health need not be costly (or cost anything), but they do take leadership and sustained commitment.

There are a number of measures that can make a huge difference. By giving employees greater flexibility around how, where and when they work, employers can create a safe and supportive environment. Additionally, creating peer networks that aid in creating open discussion around health issues can be a way to ensure employees don't feel alone in their struggles.

Perhaps most importantly, employers need to understand the needs of their own workforce and sector - there is no "one size fits all" solution to health and wellbeing. Business leaders can work to better understand the needs of their workforce through pulse surveys, interviews and open forums - all of which are non-costly endeavours that ensure open and non-judgmental lines of communication.

As the chancellor recently warned, the UK economy is set to "get worse before it gets better"; as such many businesses will be looking to cut costs in 2023. However, investment in health and wellbeing should be rightly viewed as essential for the business' survival - delivering on staff retention rates and productivity gains that will help edge ahead of competitors and allow for a strong bounce back post-recession.