The feeling of needing to appear present at work isn’t unfamiliar for a lot of people. The perception that leaving early or on time would be frowned upon, or that you’ll be commended for coming in despite ill health is a common occurrence in lots of businesses. However this behaviour, known as presenteeism, can cost businesses over £4000 in lost productivity per employee each year. This is a significant number and not something you can take lightly.
Is it a sign of dedication, or a more worrying indication of poor company culture? The normalisation of this behaviour can have negative impacts on employee health, both physical and mental, which in turn impacts motivation and productivity.
Employees who do come in sick will not only find it harder to work, but they increase the likelihood that others will get sick too. Productivity can decrease for entire teams with more work needing to be covered by fewer employees, affecting employee engagement. The impact on stress and the expectation that working in ill health is the norm will have a knock on effect on company culture.
So how does presenteeism affect a business? What can you do to reduce presenteeism? This blog answers these key questions:
- Presenteeism: How does it occur?
- The problems of presenteeism
- Measuring presenteeism
- How can you reduce presenteeism?
Presenteeism: How does it occur?
According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), presenteeism rates have tripled since 2010. While the jury is still out, many attribute this increase to the availability of remotely connected digital devices. If there’s one thing we’ve learnt from COVID-19, it’s that working from home is possible.
Because of this ability, the lines between work life and home life are becoming increasingly blurred, meaning people will naturally focus on work constantly. This kind of mindset motivates people to come in even when it isn’t beneficial to do so.
Similarly, presenteeism is driven by:
- Lack of paid sick days
- Time pressures
- Overbearing or unrealistic employer expectations
- Job insecurity
- Discrimination for taking sick days
The problems of presenteeism
It’s easy to assume that the fewer days of absence taken by staff, and the longer spent actively working will increase productivity, however, this is not the case. Here’s why:
- Employees that come in when ill actually won’t work at their best. There will be more chances for mistakes, missed deadlines and productivity will take a hit.
- Ill employees easily infect others, meaning more than one employee may have to miss work.
- Employees in physically demanding jobs have more chance of making mistakes, which will present unnecessary and avoidable risks.
- Lowered productivity may put strains on client relationships.
- The potential impact on mental health, with increased susceptibility to stress and anxiety, could manifest into more complex mental health issues.
So what’s the direct business cost?
A report by Nottingham Business School found the average time an employee will spend at work while ill is 2.5 weeks. Research by the Centre for Mental Health found presenteeism costs the UK economy around £15.1 billion a year. These are numbers with big implications for organisations focusing on improving employee engagement, satisfaction, company culture and overall revenue.
Presenteeism is tricky to measure. Employees suffering from ill health may appear fine.
Fortunately, there's a way around this. A team at the World Health Organisation (WHO) developed the Health and Work Performance Questionnaire (HWPQ), which does work to measure presenteeism at a workplace.
It works by measuring two metrics:
- Absolute presenteeism: This is the measure of actual performance in relation to possible performance.
- Relative presenteeism: This is the ratio of actual performance in relation to other workers in the same role.
This will allow you to approximately indicate the cost to your business from presenteeism, but once you’ve measured presenteeism, how do you go about reducing it?
How can you reduce presenteeism?
The CIPD reported that presenteeism has tripled, but despite this only 25% of organisations experiencing presenteeism are trying to tackle it.
The first thing businesses can do is stress that if an employee is ill, they shouldn’t come in. Sometimes this is easier said than done, as there are projects and deadlines to deliver. Dealing with presenteeism isn’t exactly clear cut. Rather, it requires shrewd and proactive planning, as well as a realigning of company culture and attitudes.
The needs of the business need to be balanced with the needs and health of staff. In workplaces where employee health isn’t treated with utmost importance, work will feel like a chore and employees may feel like their jobs will be at risk if they don’t come in. To mitigate this, management should encourage a workplace devoted to employee health.
Rachel Suff, Senior Employment Relations Adviser at the CIPD, says:
In order to encourage a healthy workplace, organisations need to look beyond sickness absence rates alone and develop a solid, evidence-based understanding of the underlying causes of work-related stress and unhealthy behaviour like presenteeism. Without this evidence base, efforts to support employees and improve their health and well-being will be short-lived.
A focus on wellbeing decreases unhealthy or stressful business practices, but this needs to begin from the management level. Good, employee-focused management forms the basis of workplaces that champion employee wellbeing. If presenteeism is to be dealt with, there needs to be a long-term, positive and sustained attitude change. Wellbeing shouldn’t be sacrificed for productivity. Suff explains this as:
Put simply, a reactive, ad hoc approach to well-being is not enough. If employers want to build a workforce that is happy, healthy and productive, the well-being agenda needs to be a priority and employee well-being practices must be integrated in the organisation’s day-to-day operations.
What else can businesses implement?
- Create a culture of healthy living: Enshrine health and wellbeing in company policy and dedicate time and resources towards making a healthier office.
- Ensure sick pay entitlement: This will provide an incentive for ill employees to stay home and get better.
- Create a presenteeism policy: This should describe your stance on working while sick and set out conditions for what constitutes sick leave.
Finally, businesses should ensure others can cover work while a specific employee is off sick.
For more information on the common challenges faced by organisations today, challenges such as presenteeism and their effects on the growth of your business, speak to one of our passionate and experienced specialists.