Presenteeism: a worse issue than absenteeism for the UK

The CIPD’s annual absence management survey has found that companies in the UK are struggling with presenteeism more than ever before. Whereas absenteeism refers to absence in the workplace, presenteeism (or sickness-presence), according to the CIPD, is the act of going into work while ill.

On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a huge problem. After all, employees who go into work sick are dedicated and determined workers – right? Over the last year, we have been inundated with figures claiming that the UK has fallen behind in productivity. In November 2016, The Guardian printed an article stating that Germany, Italy, France and the US had all come ahead of the UK in productivity levels. Phillip Hammond, Chancellor of the Exchequer, said at the time: “It takes a German worker four days to produce what we make in five, which means, in turn, that too many British workers work longer hours for lower pay than their counterparts.” We know that absenteeism is also costing the UK dearly, with PwC estimating that sick leave costs the UK economy £29 billion a year. So how on earth have we found ourselves complaining about employees who are actually attending work?

In the past, decision-makers and managers assumed that the solution to absenteeism and low productivity was to crack down on attendance, so that staff came into work every day. The idea was that higher attendance rates equals higher productivity. But the latest CIPD findings challenge this traditional belief, with a survey revealing that 72% of employers say that presenteeism is an issue that they are dealing with in their company. And according to Legal & General, the multinational financial services company, presenteeism can cost three times more than sickness-related absence and accounts for 14% of productivity loss.

HRZone describes presenteeism as being “lost productivity and performance due to employees showing up at work but not working at full capacity because of sickness, other medical conditions, or distraction caused by personal issues i.e. caring for a sick relative, financial or marital problems.”

Adrian Lewis, director of Activ Absence – a company that offers absence planning and management software – argues that companies need to be more aware of the dangers of presenteeism: “Whilst some people struggle into work if they are unwell, thinking their bosses will be pleased with them, it is counterproductive,” says Lewis. “It can lead to the illness lasting longer, and an ‘overworking culture’ ultimately leads to stress, one of the most common reasons for both short and long term absence in the workplace.”

That’s not all. HRZone published an article claiming that sickness-presence can lead to “work-related accidents, equipment breakage, absences related to family-work life balance, errors in judgment, conflicts and interpersonal problems.” Most obviously, the biggest risk is that contagious illnesses will be passed on to other workers, increasing the issue of sickness-related absences, or even presenteeism itself!

On tackling the issue within his own organisation, Adrian Lewis says, “We allow staff to work from home if they are unwell, or even if they have to be at home for a delivery occasionally. It means staff who are infectious but feel well enough to work have the opportunity to do so without infecting the whole office, and flexibility for family responsibilities improves loyalty.”

Fighting presenteeism requires executives to be innovative, trusting and empathetic. In order to move away from workers feeling pressured to go into work even when they know they’re going to be unproductive, managers need to ensure that their employees feel able to come to them with issues that may be extremely personal, without fear of judgment or repercussions. At the same time, employees mustn’t take liberties with the freedom and trust given to them by executives and directors. If they are generally reliable and largely productive, there is no reason for an executive to refuse them time off when they need it.
The issue is a delicate one that requires a bit of give and take from both sides. But in finding the balance, it becomes a win/win situation for company chiefs and employees alike.

Iimaan Shayma (6 Posts)

Cambridge University graduate and professional career sector writer.


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1 Comment

  1. Kathy

    You have explained this new concept rather well. Hmm, I know about absenteeism but this is a novel concept for me. I have never heard of it before, so I googled it to gain more information and was astonished at the amount of research being conducted on this topic. I agree with your thoughts on how to handle presenteeism, however not many employers are so broadminded. They are more concerned about the present instead of focusing on how an issue like presenteeism would affect productivity in the future. Short term solutions to improving productivity focus on absenteeism and not presenteeism. This attitude needs to change. As you mentioned in your blog finding the right balance is the key.



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