Presenteeism in the workplace

Continuing to work while you are unwell could be negatively impacting your business
by Bethan Rees

Falling ill can confront employees with a dilemma: stick it out and go to work or stay at home and recuperate? If they opt for the former, they are guilty of ‘presenteeism’ – turning up for work when unwell, which could result in a loss of productivity for the firm. 

Acas, an organisation that provides advice to employers and employees, explains that on top of affecting productivity, “sickness presence can adversely affect general staff morale and contribute to a longer recovery period from illness”.
The numbers According to research conducted by academics at Nottingham Business School in 2017, which surveyed 1,300 employees of a large UK utilities organisation, employees are spending an average of 2.5 weeks a year at work despite feeling unwell, which in turn means that employees are operating at an average of 84% full capacity. This is making a lost productivity cost to the employer of £4,058.93 per person per year – this was worked out using each respondent’s salary band mid-point, equating to a mean lost productivity cost.

In May 2018, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) published findings from its 18th annual survey on Health and wellbeing at work. The report, produced in partnership with medical insurance provider Simplyhealth (download here), highlights the issue of presenteeism. The survey of over 1,000 UK-based human resources professionals finds that 86% of respondents had observed presenteeism in their business over the past 12 months, in comparison with 72% in 2016 and just 26% in 2010.

Despite the rising figures, the report shows that a minority of firms are taking steps to address presenteeism, with just 25% saying their organisation had taken steps to discourage this behaviour in the past year. This has almost halved from the 2016 report, where 48% of respondents reported that their firm had acted on presenteeism. 

Rachel Suff, senior employment relations adviser at the CIPD, says in the CIPD report that the rise in presenteeism is a sign that people are under more pressure at work and that “the threats to wellbeing in the modern workplace are psychological rather than physical”. She says that too few organisations are taking action to tackle stress and unhealthy workplace conditions that are linked to serious health problems, such as anxiety and depression. 

According to Dr Doug Wright, medical director at Aviva UK Health, presenteeism is being stimulated by an “increased ‘always on’ culture”. He recommends that businesses ensure they are communicating to employees that it is important to recover when unwell. 
Why is it bad for business? A blog by Health Assured, an employee assistance programme, lists the main reasons why presenteeism is bad for business. First, employees won’t perform to the best of their ability if they are unwell and working could increase the severity of the problem. Second, the sick employee could spread germs to colleagues, increasing the levels of unproductivity. Third, it could cause a health and safety risk in some jobs, if the employee’s job is to handle dangerous materials or operate machinery. 
What are an employer’s obligations?In an article for HR Magazine, Tilly Harries, head of PwC human resources support, writes about the role employers play in their employees’ wellbeing. She reports that employers have a duty of care that means they should take all “reasonable steps to ensure their [employees’] physical and mental health, safety and wellbeing” is looked after. She also reminds the reader that the Equality Act 2010 requires employers to make adjustments for workers with long-term illnesses who could be classed as disabled under the Act, for example, allowing extended time off for treatment and recovery. 

Harries also advises on what an employer should do if an employee insists on returning to work. “[If] an employee has been signed off [work] by a GP, there is no mechanism for them to be formally ‘signed back’ to work if they wish to return before their fit note expires,” she reports. She recommends the safest approach is for the employer to advise the employee not to return until the fit note has expired. She adds that if the illness is of a physical nature, such as a broken leg, employers should be pragmatic and perhaps look at allowing the employee to work from home. 
How to stop presenteeismThere are some steps employers can take to try and curb this increasing workplace behaviour. 

The Health Assured blog acknowledges that employers telling their employees not to come in if they’re unwell may not stop a worker worrying they’ll be punished for taking time off. However, it advises promoting openness on both sides of the issue. There should be a clear sickness absence policy that outlines various important details, such as how an employee should declare their absence (for example, a phonecall before 9am), the level of sick pay they will receive and whether they will need a doctor’s note after a certain period. 

Harries recommends training managers to set an example to their team. For example, if employees see their manager working while ill, they will probably think this is what is expected of them too. Harries suggests that management encourage unwell employees to go home and should note the importance of being fit at work. 

In an article for careers website The Balance Careers, management and organisation development consultant Susan Heathfield agrees with Harries that presenteeism is a problem that needs fixing from the top. She writes: “Senior managers need to stay home when they are sick or unable to attend to their work for whatever reason. Period.”

Harries also advises against the use of disciplinary action against employees who have exceeded their sick day allowance. “This could result in staff returning to work when they are still sick. Instead employers should have comprehensive capability or sickness policies in place that focus on supporting employees to return to work and making reasonable adjustments to enable them to do so,” she writes.

An article on Employee Benefits, a website providing news, analysis and research from the employee benefits sector, suggests investing in employee wellness to try and curtail presenteeism. The article reports: “Placing an emphasis on the health and wellness of your workplace will demonstrate that your company is responsible and cares about its staff, which will result in engaged and loyal employees.” It recommends creating a programme to support employees in emotional, physical and social wellness.

It’s important that employers tackle the rising problem of presenteeism. A combination of solutions, such as training managers to set an example, supporting employees if they are unwell and having clear policies on both sides could help towards solving this workplace dilemma. 

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Published: 25 Jan 2019
  • Career Development
  • The Review
  • sickness policy
  • presenteeism
  • Career advice

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