Managing the presenteeism problem

It is common knowledge that sickness absences cost employers money. What is perhaps less well-known is the impact that sickness presences – a function of “presenteeism” - can have.

Studies over the past few years have produced some statistics on the extent of the presenteeism problem. A CIPD study in 2016 found that one third of employers had reported an increase in the numbers of its staff working whilst unwell, whilst a report from Fellowes found that 52% of UK workers admitted they had turned up to work despite being ill.

Although reduced sickness absence levels may be a good thing for businesses in the short-term, the impact of sick staff coming into work instead of staying at home can be significant in the long-term. Employers with a presenteeism problem report around twice the average level of stress-related absence and mental health issues among staff. Reports suggest that presenteeism costs employers 3 times more than sickness absence; Legal and General calculated that a company with 600 employees loses £2 million per year due to it. From an employee’s point of view, feeling under pressure to work whilst ill can be bad for morale and lengthen the time it takes to recover.

It is clearly in the interests of staff and their employers to try to tackle presenteeism. As always, prevention is better than cure, and the below measures can help managers to discourage sickness presence before it arises:

  • Check your policies: A particularly punitive sickness absence policy will do little to encourage staff to take time to recuperate. Take for instance Sports Direct’s former “6 strikes and you’re out” policy, which listed taking “a period of reported absence” as meriting a strike; perhaps unsurprisingly, staff were reportedly scared to call in sick, and its warehouse had 76 ambulance call-outs for staff in 2 years.
  • Set expectations: Presenteeism is found to occur more in businesses with cultures of working long hours; indeed, a study by Ricoh found that 41% of employees believe that their employers favour the staff who spend the most time in the office. Avoid encouraging staff to “soldier on” or seeing working whilst ill as a marker of dedication. Make clear to staff that when they are not feeling well, they are expected to stay at home and get better.
  • Manage workloads: An employee with an overly busy workload will be more likely to come into work, whether because they are afraid of missing deadlines or having the time to catch up, or because they do not want to burden busy colleagues with sickness cover. Monitor workloads as a matter of practice and have appropriate levels of supervision in place to register when employees are being overstretched. If staff do take days off sick, have a plan in place for distributing their work fairly among colleagues.
  • Focus on wellbeing: It is worth considering implementing a wellbeing programme for staff. There are many kinds of measures which could help from a mental health perspective, such as running awareness initiatives, offering counselling where appropriate, and encouraging a healthy work-life balance. In terms of promoting physical health, an employer could offer free fruit at work, give out equipment to improve posture, subsidise exercise classes or run cycle-to-work schemes.

Sarah Owbridge is a Senior Paralegal at leading employment law firm BDBF.