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What should Employers be doing about Presenteeism?

8 July 2021

We all know how costly employee absence can be but the opposite, presenteeism, can be equally damaging and it’s on the rise, exacerbated by the Covid pandemic.

What is presenteeism?

Physically attending work when:

  • Sick
  • Injured
  • Against medical advice
  • Overly tired
  • Not operating at normal levels of productivity

Research shows that presenteeism, in whatever form, is a common and often unaddressed issue.

How does presenteeism impact your business?

The most obvious risk currently is an employee with the Covid virus who comes into work, which is more likely to apply to younger staff not vaccinated at present. Employees are more ineffective when they are physically or mentally unwell or have lost the will to work. Their impaired performance and judgement could lead to mistakes, bad decisions and inefficiency which, in turn, causes financial loss, upset and bad feeling, costs, time and money to fix.

There is extensive evidence that working while unwell can delay rather than expedite recovery and increase the risk of future health problems and sickness absence. Moreover, the findings that people frequently continue to work while experiencing infectious diseases raises particularly serious concerns for public health during the current pandemic.

Why does presenteeism happen?

A wide range of personal, organisational and occupational factors have been found to influence people’s decisions about whether they should continue to work or take time off sick. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated many of the known risk factors which encourage presenteeism:

  • concerns regarding job security and finances – employees often seek to demonstrate their worth and commitment to their employer, hoping not to be furloughed, subjected to hours/pay cuts or made redundancy by not being present
  • people are often reluctant to ‘let down’ managers and burden colleagues, especially where staffing levels are low, or businesses are struggling to survive
  • employees with a poor sickness record may be particularly likely to work while sick during the pandemic, especially as some organisations may use sickness absence records to select staff for redundancy
  • some organisational cultures promote presenteeism, stigmatising sick leave and ‘normalising’ longer working hours
  • employees experiencing personal problems believe that escaping to work and being in work will provide a necessary distraction
  • some homeworkers are struggling to combine paid work with caring responsibilities. Under such circumstances, the pressure to remain working during illness can be intensified. Disconnecting from work can also be harder if there are no physical boundaries between the work and personal domains

What should employers be doing about presenteeism?

It isn’t just about productivity – without action now, the health and wellbeing of employees will be adversely affected through mental exhaustion and physical drain. Employers also run the risk of high levels of turnover and inability to attract talent which will be key to business success in the future.

It is possible that sickness presenteeism may become less acceptable, both socially and by organisations, due to fears of Covid-19 transmission and the need to take pre-emptive action for the collective good. In the meantime, here are some tips for employers to address this challenge now:

  • shift the culture from the mentality that working all hours is the only way to success, by introducing policies and procedures enforcing employees to not turn up for work when they are sick or injured or simply show signs of illness, whether Covid-19 related or otherwise – it’s important that they are supported and feel comfortable taking time off to recuperate when they are unwell
  • review existing policies on absence and sickness reporting to ensure that accurate attendance figures are generated. Introduce an Infectious Disease policy that is very clear on what staff must do
  • remove, or at least modify, financial rewards or other promotion opportunities connected to attendance metrics
  • for employees working from home, provide guidance on boundary-setting and withdrawing from work communications when off sick
  • introduce or update wellbeing policies and/or introduce wellbeing champions. Training a Mental Health First Aider can help too
  • assess annual leave levels to ensure that full allowances are being taken
  • introduce policies that cap working hours, discourage working long hours or allow for overtime opportunities
  • invest in training for supervisors and managers to help them support their staff 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 enable employees to have more control over their working patterns. Staff who can ‘self-schedule’ their workings hours tend to report lower levels of presenteeism (However, keep in mind the other points above.)

Managing presenteeism effectively is a long-term investment in the wellbeing of people and organisations. It’s particularly important with home working to ensure that employees remain healthy and can perform at their best. Yes, this may mean more time off in the short-term, but it means they come back to work far more energised than if they felt obliged to work throughout a period of illness.

Loch Associates Group can help you with all of this by providing management training for managers and supervisors, reviewing and updating your policies, supporting you with culture change activities and giving you access to our HR Medical Specialists and Mental Health First Aid trainers.

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