The rise in the number of sick days employees have been taking is becoming a concern in many developed countries. In Sweden, the number of sick days per employee increased by one full day per year from 2021 to 2022. In the U.S., the absenteeism rate is the highest it has been in a decade; in December 2022 alone, an estimated 1.5 million Americans missed work.
While ongoing waves of COVID-19 infections have played a role in absenteeism, there is also evidence of a rise in mental health issues, which were responsible for 20% of the sick days used in France in 2022 — an increase from 17% in 2021 and 15% in 2020. For the National Health Service in the U.K., the cost of sick days related to mental health issues has doubled since the start of the pandemic, totaling nearly half a billion annually.
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There are many overlapping explanations for such an apparent decrease in well-being at work. Most obviously, we are emerging from a global pandemic that has required both organizations and employees to be resilient in the face of stressful work conditions on top of health and family concerns. Add a cost-of-living crisis, and it’s clear that anxiety is beginning to dominate our experience of work. Further, when colleagues go missing due to illness or poor mental health, it can create a domino effect, as those left behind have to take on additional responsibilities in the short term.
Many organizations, including Vitality, Salesforce, and Infosys, have designed what we call organizational strategies for well-being, through initiatives such as reshaping their culture and providing direct well-being benefits. These shifts may involve training leaders on well-being, offering benefits such as meditation or well-being apps, or providing access to counseling.
The trend of increasing sick-day use and mental health issues calls for a focus on such well-being initiatives in the workplace. We propose the concept of well-being intelligence for managers as a skill set and tool to understand and improve their own and employees’ well-being. As workplace challenges increase, well-being intelligence is becoming an essential leadership skill. Effective managers must be able to detect when others are struggling with well-being and know when and how to offer support.