We all understand the impact that employee absence can have on businesses – in fact, sickness leave costs companies around £544 per employee.
But did you know that the cost of sick staff doesn’t just equate to those that are absent from work? In fact, there’s a significant cost associated with those who are unwell but still come into work or even those that just choose to regularly work overtime. This phenomenon is called ‘presenteeism’ – and it’s a growing problem in the UK.
Recent research has shown that the average employee only took 2.7 days off sick a year, compared to 3.3 days in the previous year. At the same time, presenteeism was estimated at 27.7 days, compared to 24.2 days in the year before. Following the pandemic, these numbers are inevitably set to increase further.
With research indicating that employees are working when they shouldn’t be, what is the knock-on effect for businesses, and what can they do to take care of their staff? Ultimately – and most crucially – how can employers avoid presenteeism amongst staff?
What is presenteeism?
Presenteeism refers to the productivity that is lost when employees are not fully engaged with their workload, usually as a result of illness or injury. Even though they are physically present, they are not able to perform their duties to the best of their ability, or to the expectation of the business.
Unlike absenteeism, presenteeism isn’t a tangible phenomenon. It’s easy to spot when someone hasn’t come into work, but it’s near impossible to judge exactly how much someone’s illness is hindering their ability to work.
Presenteeism isn’t about pretending to be ill to avoid work or procrastinating by browsing the internet. It refers specifically to productivity lost as a result of genuine health issues. The fundamental truth of presenteeism is that employees do not take the idea of going off sick lightly – instead, they want and need to continue working for as long as they can.
Why does presenteeism happen?
Presenteeism can occur due to a varying range of factors. Unfortunately, the impact of Covid-19 has exacerbated many of the contributing risk factors that can ultimately encourage presenteeism.
- Concerns around job security and salary – employees can often feel that they need to prove their worth by showing their dedication and commitment to their employer. In return, they hope to avoid pay cuts and redundancy.
- Employees can be hesitant to let down their managers or hand over work to their colleagues, particularly when times are stressful or busy within the company.
- Those staff members who already have a poor sickness record may feel reluctant to take more time off.
- Many companies actively promote the culture of presenteeism by normalising longer working days and making those that take sick leave feel guilty and fearful of repercussions.
- Some employees may be having personal problems at home and feel that coming to work will be a welcome distraction.
- Employees who have caregiving responsibilities struggle to balance them with their day-to-day work. In these cases, the demands can cause burnout, and intensify any illness.
What is the impact of this on businesses?
Presenteeism can have a significant impact on businesses, particularly post-Covid. The most obvious risk is a physical one: an employee with the virus who comes into work and infects other staff members.
Employees cannot be as productive when they are physically or mentally unwell or have lost the will to work. When they are ‘on the job’ but unable to fully function to the best of their ability, employee productivity can actually be cut by a third or more. In fact, recent data shows that productivity lost due to presenteeism is 7.5 times greater than that from absenteeism. This impaired performance can lead to mistakes, bad decisions, and inefficiency, which can quickly snowball into financial losses.
In fact, working whilst unwell can delay rather than improve recovery, and increase the risk of future health problems and absence. If someone can’t rest and recuperate, their performance will steadily decline, and ultimately lead towards burnout.
Without acting, employees may be affected through mental exhaustion and physical drain. Combined with a lack of productivity, this runs the risk of high levels of turnover and an inability to attract talent – all of which will inhibit your success in the future.
What can employers do?
From a legal perspective, it’s an employer’s duty to care for their staff once they’re on board. If an employee is overworking or working when ill, it’s important that the employer takes steps to look after their health and safety.
Here are some tips for employers to consider now:
- Ensure your company does not promote a culture that encourages working long hours. By introducing policies that encourage employees not to come to work if they show signs of illness, you’ll ensure they feel supported and comfortable when taking time off if unwell.
- Change any financial rewards or promotion opportunities that reward higher attendance.
- Provide clear boundaries for remote workers around working when sick.
- Introduce employee wellbeing policies and champions. A Mental Health First Aider can be a valuable asset to any business too!
- Check that employees are taking their full annual leave allowance.
- Introduce policies that cap working hours, discourage working long hours, or allow for excessive overtime opportunities.
- Invest in training for supervisors and managers to help them support their staff, and to identify and address the early signs of stress. Managers may also benefit from training in coaching techniques to facilitate critical wellbeing conversations with staff, whether working from home or externally.
- If appropriate for your business, introduce more creative approaches to flexible working to give employees more control over their working patterns.
- To stop employees from battling into work, consider offering some form of enhanced sick pay especially for senior employees.
- Hold monthly surveys to ask your employees about their working life with you. This could provide insights into why some of them may be overworking.
- Introduce health-promoting initiatives at work to encourage better mental and physical health. This could include a cycle to work scheme or free fruit.
Understanding and managing presenteeism is a long-term investment in the well-being of both your employees and your business. Ensuring that employees remain healthy and can work at optimum performance is vital to your long-term stability and success, particularly given the rise in remote working. Whilst this might require more time off in the short-term, your employees should come back feeling more productive and energised than if they’d been required to work throughout their illnesses.
Pam Loch is the Managing Director and Solicitor at Loch Associates Group. They are HR Consultants in Kent, who can help with managing absences and address these issues by providing management training for managers and supervisors, reviewing, and updating policies, supporting culture change activities, and offering services provided by HR Medical Specialists and Mental Health First Aid trainers