Wellbeing: Why people professionals need to walk the talk

CIPD Voice On... the impact of work on people professionals' mental and physical health, by Rebecca Peters, CIPD Research Adviser.

It’s very telling that the 2022 word of the year reflected the chaos and upheaval that we’ve experienced since the start of the 2020s. Permacrisis, defined as “an extended period of instability and insecurity” by Collins Dictionary, encapsulates this phenomena perfectly.

HR is no stranger to this. Anecdotally, we’ve been hearing from senior leaders and practitioners about the mental strain and overload that many within the profession have experienced following the unprecedented events of recent years. And now we have the cold, hard stats that provide evidence to those conversations. For the first time since the survey was created, the People Profession Survey 2022 UK & Ireland and International reports explored the mental and physical wellbeing of practitioners. And the results are pretty eye-opening.

General health and wellbeing

Within the UK, around 55% of respondents said their mental health was either good or very good, with this figure standing at 52% for physical health. On the flip side, a fifth said their mental and physical health was either poor or very poor (20% and 21% respectively). So far, these findings aren’t particularly ground-breaking, but they outline the general mental and physical health perceptions of HR professionals. However, when we bring work into the equation, we found some really worrying  results.

When we asked the same group of respondents how their work impacts their health, we found that a sizeable proportion – three in ten – felt­­­­­ their mental and physical health was negatively impacted (31% and 29% respectively). And in comparison with the wider UK workforce, respondents from the People Profession survey averaged more negative scores.

So we’re seeing a higher proportion of professionals saying their work negatively impacts upon their health, compared to those who reported poorer health in general. However, when we start to compare other countries, do we see a similar trends across the HR profession?

In short, UK practitioners seem to be impacted the most. Across the seven other European and Middle East and North Africa markets that we surveyed, only between 5% and 17% said their work negatively impacted their mental health. And between 7% and 20% said the same about physical health. In fact, other regions were more likely to say that work positively impacted their mental health with Italy (43%) and Egypt (46%) at the top of the list, versus only 27% in the UK.  

While there’s a multitude of reasons and factors that could be influencing general health, the impact of work is quite concerning. So how do we address these findings in practice and start to reverse what could be early warning signs of burnout within HR?

Practice what you preach

HR practitioners are often busy ensuring employee health and wellbeing stays on the agenda and developing strategies and interventions to address any issues, but perhaps this is to the detriment of their own self-care. People professionals often cite a sense of purpose and meaningfulness in the work that they do – probably one of the main reasons why many enter a career in the profession. But that sense of purpose can also contribute to higher levels of stress and anxiety and weigh heavily on the individual. By role-modelling and developing healthy work habits, we can positively impact our own wellbeing and signal behaviours that are conducive to good health, to the rest of the business. Above all, the data from this survey is a strong reminder that we need to be kind to ourselves, before we can support others around us.

Rebalance expectations

There’s a sense among HR leaders that the pandemic sent expectations soaring, particularly expectations from business leaders. And whilst this is a great thing – signalling the value and impact that the profession brings to the business – this sense of commitment and purpose needs to be balanced with a healthy working style to make it sustainable. So leaders within the profession need to think seriously about how to rebalance expectations, prioritise key objectives and protect their teams from the negative impacts of unrealistic demands placed upon them.

The juggle is real

Finding the right balance to successfully juggle work and life doesn’t have to impact business operations, but it does have to work for the business. Hot-off-the-press evidence suggests that we’re at the forefront of cracking the four-day-working week. At least for some organisations it’s no longer a fantasy, and could become a reality for many: 56 out of the 61 businesses trialling this plan to continue with the trial, and 18 are adopting this model of work for the foreseeable future. And the majority taking part – seven out of ten – report lower levels of burnout.

Whilst a four-day-week might seem far-fetched for some businesses, the trial demonstrates the positive impact on wellbeing. So make work flexible where possible and give colleagues the ability to work in ways that best suit them.

At a time where recruiting and retaining talent is increasingly more challenging, we need to look after our teams. Supporting flexible working, managing workloads and role-modelling healthy work-life behaviours will be as highly valued by employees as a pay rise.

For more detail on these findings and others, visit the 2022 People Profession UK & Ireland and international reports.

Don’t forget that the CIPD offers practical advice and conversation checklists for managers to better support those experiencing stress and mental health issues and tips on how to support your employees and organisation to be more resilient. The advice in these guides applies as much to you as to your employees.

The CIPD also offers a wellbeing helpline service for its members.

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