Last reviewed 15 May 2019

HR buzzwords such as “onboarding” and “rightsourcing” are often thrown around in the workplace as they gain momentum in corporate jargon speak, but the dangers lurking behind words such as presenteeism may be going unrecognised.

What is presenteeism?

You might find yourself asking, what is presenteeism? Well it’s the technical word for staff attending work when they are ill or not fit to do so; essentially, it’s the opposite of absenteeism. The phrase has become more accepted in recent years as the detrimental impact this can have on organisations has become increasingly recognised.

Statistics have focused on this issue in recent years, with a study by the health insurer Vitality finding that over 40% of employees surveyed replied that their work was being affected by their health problems. Vitality states that this is a figure that has risen by a third in a five-year period. Supporting these findings, the latest CIPD/Simplyhealth Health and Well-being at Work survey reveals that those who have observed presenteeism in their workplace within the last 12 months stood at 86% in 2018. This figure has increased steadily as the survey has been repeated over the past decade, with presenteeism figures rising from 26% in 2010 to 72% in 2016.

What are the effects of presenteeism?

Managers may see no issue with the fact that their team has low levels of absenteeism and their subordinates attend work each and every day to get through their task lists. After all, work doesn’t get done if your employees aren’t present. This mind-set, however, places the business at a detriment when employees are attending work but they’re not in a fit state to do so. It should be common knowledge that a sick employee is not as productive, efficient or able to work at the same high standard as a healthy, positive employee.

Illness not only affects the sick employee but their colleagues around them. Simple impacts, such as bringing down the team’s productivity, or failing to input positively into a team project, can reduce colleagues’ morale and efficiency. Also, are you considering the effect of increased germs in the workplace? Having ill employees spending an increased amount of time in the office can raise sickness levels and lead to illness passing from one employee to another, creating a longer-lasting impact than having one employee off work during any infectious or recovery periods.

It is also worth noting that presenteeism covers employees who are not fit for work because of a mental health condition or their mental ill health. While the detrimental impact of passing this illness on to colleagues is avoided, managers should be aware that poor mental health can worsen or become more difficult to treat if individuals continue to be subjected to stress, pressure or the factors which contributed to their ill mental health originally. For example, if high workloads have caused an employee to feel stressed, continuing to attend work in the short term may cause this stress to worsen and become an entrenched mental health condition. Placing pressure on employees with poor mental health to attend work can have the opposite effect than was intended; leading to long-term sickness absences as the employee was not able to take a short period of time off to recover.

Managers who expect their staff to attend work regardless of their physical or mental health are signifying to their employees that there is no support within the workplace to address employee wellbeing and health. Such a culture can lead to higher turnover rates as employees look for supportive employment.

How to address presenteeism

Addressing presenteeism is a balancing act between keeping absence levels low to ensure effective running of the business and allowing staff the time off work to remedy their wellbeing. The statistics show, however, that organisations may not be concerned about addressing the issue, with the CIPD/Simplyhealth survey revealing that only 25% of those who had experienced presenteeism said that steps had been taken within the last year by their employer to discourage this; nearly half of the 48% who said discouragement action had taken place in 2016. If presenteeism is so bad for a business, how do you address this?

A sensible first step is to look at how you communicate around the issues of sickness and absence. Where the internal stance is overly harsh, this will effectively tell employees that they are encouraged, and perhaps forced, to attend work in most cases of sickness. If the return to work interview after any time off contains a message, whether verbally or otherwise communicated, that the employee has done wrong by taking time off when they are too ill to come to work, this will again contribute towards presenteeism.

Instead, managers and policies need to convey the message that the organisation understands the need for time off to recover during periods of poor mental and physical health. Changing communications from “when will you be back at work?” to “we understand your time off is to recover, do you have an estimated date when you feel you will be able to return to work?” is a simple change that creates an environment that puts employee health and wellbeing first, rather than focusing on attendance numbers regardless of the impact this has on the employee and the business. All internal practices and communications can be reviewed to ensure these are sending the right message. Management training on how to communicate appropriately and sensitively in these circumstances will also help.

This does not, in itself, mean that absence levels cannot be managed and actioned when they become unacceptable. But, again, how this is managed will have a consequential impact on those employees who need time off to recover from a genuine illness. Leniency and setting action point at a reasonable level, where informal action is initially undertaken, will help prevent those suffering illness from undue formal action.

Although managers are continually being informed about, and perhaps trained on, the importance of identifying symptoms of ill health, especially poor mental health, employers need to assess the message they are sending to managers once this identification has taken place. Do they simply note that an employee is suffering or are they proactively pulling the employee to one side and asking if they are okay? If the answer is no, does the manager stay silent or are they given authority to ask the employee whether they wish to go home to recover? Speaking to an employee and encouraging them to go home to recover, while reassuring and discussing work cover at this stage, is surely a better position for a department to be in than having a colleague under the weather who is not completing work as they should.