The Impact of Presenteeism at Work

When employers think about employee wellbeing, they often think about employee sickness absence and how to reduce it. However, research shows that presenteeism is just as big a risk to businesses.

Presenteeism is when employees come to work but experience decreased productivity and quality of work due to health problems.

According to research:

  • A quarter (23%) wouldn’t take a sick day unless they were hospitalised or had no other choice. That equates to 7 million UK workers1.
  • Nine in ten (89%) of workers say they have gone into work when feeling ill1.
  • Nearly half (47%) of employees would come into work with a stomach bug1.
  • More than half (55%) would go into work if they had the flu – despite the high chance of this illness spreading to their co-workers1.
  • Nearly half (48%) of workers say they have become unwell due to a colleague’s illness on more than one occasion1.

Why are employees doing this?

The main reasons employees gave for going into work when unwell are:

  1. Feeling their illness doesn’t warrant a day off (69%)1.
  2. High workloads have forced them to go into work when unwell (34%)1.
  3. Concerned about the financial implications of taking time off (22%)1.  
  4. Made to feel guilty for taking time off by other colleagues/senior members of staff (12%)1.  
  5. They don’t feel secure enough in their job/feel threatened by the risk of redundancy to take time off for illness (11%)1.  
  6. Concerned that they won’t be able to secure a doctor’s note (3%)1.  

But it’s not just employees suffering from physical illnesses that continue to come to work. Nearly a fifth (18%) said that they’ve gone into work when feeling mentally unwell. The equivalent of 5.8 million UK workers1.

In addition, a fifth (19%) say they’d be more likely to go into work if feeling mentally unwell than they would if feeling physically unwell1. Despite the attention from the media and governing bodies to reduce the stigma around mental health in the workplace, it continues to be an issue. Around 20% would be embarrassed to say they were off with a mental health problem, while more than one in ten (13%) would be worried about future job prospects if they took time off for this1.

What can employers do?

First and foremost, improve the perceptions of illness in the workplace so employees feel secure that they won’t be seen as weak, lazy or less dedicated for taking time off with a short-term illness. In some circumstances presenteeism may be a result of workplace culture. A third (34%) of employees say promoting a more positive attitude to health and wellbeing would be beneficial. And a quarter (26%) identified less pressure to be ‘always on’ and working. So a change in workplace culture may be required1.

Other measures employees say would help them feel more comfortable taking time off when they need it to recuperate include:

  • Flexible work options (37%)1   
  • A reduced workload (25%)1  
  • Workplace support, such as Employee Assistance Programmes (22%)1, and
  • Back to work rehabilitation for longer term conditions (18%)1.

There is also a lack of awareness about workplace support for sickness absence. More than two in five (43%) say they’re not aware of any form of support in their organisation. And just 10% say their employer has an Employee Assistance Programme in place1. So having services in place and communicating them clearly and regularly to staff is vital in improving employee wellbeing.

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1. Canada Life Group Insurance, 2017

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