As a new report reveals alarming statistics around work-related stress in the UK, one key message has emerged: Business leaders may need to reassess their wellness strategies in 2024, to put employee health and wellbeing front and centre.

Underpinning these strategies needs to be open dialogue and clear lines of communication; where everyone — at all levels of the business — feels comfortable seeking support for their mental health, should they need it.

Mental Health UK’s Burnout report 2024, based on a YouGov poll of 2,060 adults, found that 91% of UK adults experienced high or extreme levels of pressure or stress in the past year, leading to one in five workers (20%) in the UK needing to take time off work in that period.  

According to the charity, the UK is fast becoming a “burnt-out nation” — with more than a third of adults revealing they have faced extreme pressure within the workplace in the past year.

The findings raise pressing questions around the source of work pressures in the UK— with poor working relationships and processes, and issues with communication between employees and line managers, cited as key factors. The report has also published recommendations for both employee and employer, to help tackle the worrying levels of workplace stress, while leaders across the world of business are looking into innovative, new ways to turn things around.

Incentivising good health

In 2024, many organisations will be stepping up their wellness initiatives, but one solution being explored is the concept of employers incentivising good health for better productivity.

Research by Vitality UK shows workplaces could save the NHS £1.2 billion a year by taking on greater responsibility for improving the health of their employees. 

The company’s CEO Neville Koopowitz believes businesses should be legally required to report on employee health — for the benefit of both the employees and business performance. Helping business leaders understand what health issues their staff are living with, enables them to offer effective and targeted health and wellbeing interventions at work.

Vitality’s research shows that employees who were offered access to a health assessment on average lost 14% fewer productive days than those without the service.

It also revealed that people who engaged with their wellness programme — which incentivises and rewards people to live healthier lives — were 29% less likely to go to hospital for a health issue. 

According to Mental Health UK’s report, when it comes to what helps alleviate stress and burnout at work, over half of respondents cited having a healthy work-life balance (56%), while four in ten said having a supportive line manager (43%), or supportive colleagues and peers (42%). 

When asked about the factors at work which have contributed to burnout in the past year, the majority of working adults agreed that ‘a high or increased workload or volume of tasks at work – unpaid’ (54%), ‘regularly working unpaid overtime beyond contracted hours’ (45%) and ‘feeling isolated at work’ (42%) had played a part. A significant proportion also cited ‘fear of redundancy/job security’ (40%).

It’s clear that open dialogue is imperative to both understanding the needs of employees, and for those who are struggling to feel comfortable asking for help. For managers, establishing achievable goals and deadlines is crucial, as is promoting a healthy work-life balance, encouraging employees to take breaks, book their annual leave, and ensure overtime is not excessive.

Avoiding stigmatising language around mental health and mental illness is also vital.

The Burnout Report’s recommendations for senior leaders includes being visible in how they maintain their own wellbeing and work-life balance, and refraining from working when unwell; ultimately, leading by example.

Other recommendations include clearly communicating access to resources, such as counselling services or Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) and having robust policies and procedures in place to address workplace bullying and harassment. 

Conducting regular assessments of workplace stressors and adjusting policies based on employee feedback can also help create a healthier work environment that reduces the risk of burnout and fosters the wellbeing of all employees.

Promoting good physical health

A recent study conducted in Taiwan, involving 481,688 workers, has shed light on the increased health risks for those who predominantly sit throughout their working day — with their risk of dying from cardiovascular disease 34% higher than for non-sitters. The research published in the journal JAMA Network Open, suggested a number of beneficial workplace changes – including the addition of standing tables, activity-permissive work stations, more frequent breaks for employees, designated workplace areas for physical activity, group activities and gym membership benefits.

Other studies recommend taking a break from sitting every 30 minutes, standing up for phone calls, and arranging walking meetings rather than sitting in a conference room.

The key role of physical activity and exercise in the management of stress and mental health has long been supported by studies across various fields, including psychology, neuroscience, and medicine.

Physical activity has consistently been shown to reduce levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline in the body. And with other benefits including enhanced cognitive function, improved memory, concentration, creativity and problem-solving skills, there’s a strong business case for leaders to promote physical activity in the workplace, as far as possible, for both employee wellbeing and productivity.

Explore more ideas

Having a perspective on how workforces and workplaces can prepare for changes that are inevitable will enable HR leaders and their teams to cultivate success. ITN Business will showcase how HR professionals can stay ahead of the curve and adapt to the latest developments across the employment field in ‘The Future of Work: People, Culture and Tech’ — launching June 2024.

Here’s a taster.