The term “presenteeism” was originally used to describe employees who come to work whilst they are physically or mentally unwell, rather than taking sickness absence to recover. Over time this term has evolved to include employees who are dis-engaged from their job, being ‘present’ at work in the physical sense, but not in the mental aspect.

Presenteeism within the UK has rapidly expanded within the past decade, with the number of employees workings whilst ill tripling since 2010. For a long time, employees turning up to work ill has been seen in a more positive light, with this action serving as an indicator of an employee’s dedication to a business. Unfortunately, there is an increasing amount of research which is clearly pointing to the fact that ill employees turning up for work is having a more detrimental effect on businesses, from both a wellbeing and a profitability perspective.

A recent study by the Nottingham Business School claims that the average employee spends 2.5 weeks a year working whilst they are suffering from an illness. It has been recorded that these ill employees who are ‘present’ are only working at ‘84% Capacity’, meaning that there is a noticeable drop in productivity levels when compared to healthy employees. This fall in productivity comes at a substantial cost to employers, with a loss of £4,058.93 per person per annum being calculated.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that the average number of sickness absence days which UK employers take per year has been on a downward trend for over two decades, almost halving since 1993. It has been observed that since the financial crisis of 2008, and the ensuing economic recession, sickness absence rates within the UK have fallen by half a percent to 1.9% in 2017.

Presenteeism Conditions

Before chronicling the causes of presenteeism it is useful to understand what conditions are most prominent in employees who come to work when ill. Unexpectedly, neither colds nor the flu, which affect many people within the work environment (over 50% are afflicted at least once per year) are marked as the condition which is the cause of most presenteeism.

Unexpectedly, hand and wrist pain have been identified as the leading cause, with sufferers being affected for almost 82 working days per year, followed by arthritis at 66 days, and stress, anxiety and depression being measured at 30 days.

Conditions such as lower back pain, hand and wrist pain, anxiety or stress, if not addressed appropriately by managers and employers can produce more severe complications as time passes. Over a prolonged period, a condition can worsen if they are given no time to recover resulting in an employee taking a significant period off work. Ironically presenteeism is reported to account for more lost productivity than sickness absence as a result of illness, with this figure being over five times greater.

Causes of Presenteeism

So, despite many employees experiencing these ailments, one of the main questions posed is why are employees suffering in silence rather than opting to take some time off to fully recover from work?

The leading factor which affects presenteeism levels is based upon employee job security, with many workers feeling it is vital that they show up for work as much as possible, whether they are unwell or not. Sir Cary Cooper, President of the CIPD and Professor of Organisations Psychology and Health at the University of Manchester has stated: “The concerns about job security from Brexit and the aftermath of the recession have left to people needing to show ‘face time’, worried that high absenteeism would lead to possible redundancy”.

It is understandable that UK employees may feel more vulnerable due to the unstable nature of the current economic climate, with the CIPD asserting that 36% of employers acknowledge staff have expressed concern to them about their own job security, with a further 36% of organisations said that non-UK employees have shown concern about their ongoing right to work within the UK.

Other contributory factors include employees being fearful of developing a negative image of themselves, such as being branded as lazy or not a team player. Employees may also be dealing with significant workloads which would become unmanageable if time was taken off to deal with their own wellbeing issues. Lastly, any employee who is paid by the hour may force themselves into work to ensure they can pay all their bills and other outgoing costs.

How can an Employer Tackle Presenteeism Effectively?

In the CIPD’s Health and Wellbeing at Work Report (2019) it was found that over 80% of respondents have observed presenteeism in their organisations over the past 12 months, with over 25% of these respondents stating this has increased over the last quarter. The CIPD drew a conclusion from this report that not enough has been done to discourage presenteeism, with only 31% of employers and organisations who have identified presenteeism acting to remedy this negative attendance culture.

One of the main reasons for presenteeism becoming such a prominent issue is the lack of employee wellbeing initiatives being put in place. Presenteeism is common in companies where long working hours are encouraged, with administrative and operational demands taking priority over staff wellness and morale. 

One of the first steps an employer could implement is making it clear to all employees that if they are having wellness problems, then they should communicate this to management. Emphasise how employee wellbeing is valued, and it is not expected that any worker should have to suffer in silence, after all we are only human, and everyone will get sick at some point. Even though a perfect attendance record for a workforce looks impressive, leaders should not be forcing or encouraging people to come into work until they have adequately recuperated and can work productively once again.

Another tactic to use is allowing employees to work from home, where possible, in instances where they may be afflicted with a contagious disease. This will kill two birds with one stone, allowing employees to stay on track but allowing flexibility and a more comforting environment for them to recover in.

With regards to employee engagement rates, it is imperative that you find out the reasons for this as quickly as possible. There are numerous aspects within a workplace which may contribute to this disengagement, including:

  • Do staff feel undervalued? Is there a fair pay structure in place?
  • Are staff overworked, or being given workloads which are too heavy?
  • Have your staff become bored of repetitive tasks and want variation and challenges?
  • Do staff feel they have a healthy work/life balance?

By sending out an anonymous survey which lists these topics and others, employers and management will find out which areas they need to improve upon. Doing so helps a workforce to be mentally present, as well as physically present.

Assess whether your Sick Pay Policy takes into account presenteeism; hard-line and overly punishing policies will deter employees from voicing their concerns and problems. If employees do not get paid whilst they are ill, or if you have rewards in place for very high attendance, then staff will be incentivised to come to work despite being unwell.

Closing Remarks

Presenteeism is a problem which seems to be taking centre stage as time passes; ironically this seems to be the case despite there being an increased drive for employee wellbeing initiatives. It could be deduced that presenteeism has always been an underlying issue, however, this increase in awareness is no doubt aided by the significant trend of more employees turning up to work when unwell. When workers are genuinely unwell, they will not be productive at work and businesses need to understand that attendance management ought to be a point of consideration alongside any wellbeing initiatives being run internally.

Unfortunately, a culture of presenteeism is being actively encouraged in 2019, with 30% of UK workers admitting they are too scared to talk to their boss about needing time off for health-related issues. Shockingly over 70% believe that their current employer does not do enough to ensure physical and mental wellbeing in their own employees, further worsening the issues surrounding presenteeism.

As an employer, or manager, it is important that a proactive approach is taken towards presenteeism by encouraging employees to be open about any issues, or wellbeing problems they are facing. Taking steps to help a worker recuperate back to good health is the far better choice rather than allowing wellness issues to deteriorate further leading to substantial sickness absences arising. Remember, work can be beneficial for one’s health, but only if this is done in a well-managed way.