According to recent figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the average number of sick days taken by employees fell to an all time low last year. In 2017, individuals took an average of 4.1 days off sick, almost half what was taken in 1993. While this may sound like a positive statistic, the CIPD has raised concerns that the decline may be a result of unhealthy working practices rather than a sudden bout of good health from employees.

presenteeism at work, employee motivationWhile the ONS maintain that there are a variety of possible reasons for the reduction of sick days, such as “an improvement in healthy life expectancy”, there is strong evidence to suggest that presenteeism, where people go to work despite being physically or mentally sick, is playing a significant role. Earlier this year, a huge 86% of organisations reported a rise in presenteeism, and yet only a quarter of employers said that any action had been taken to address the issue.

Cary Cooper, president of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says that the statistics are not a true reflection of sickness rates among UK employees. What’s more, the CIPD & Simplyhealth Health and wellbeing at work survey 2018 found almost nine in 10 HR professionals had observed presenteeism in their organisation over the past 12 months.

“[The stats are] not real. What’s pumping it is presenteeism. If it was really a drop in sickness absence rates, you would have a productivity rise. And we haven’t seen a productivity rise in years.”
– Cary Cooper, President of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

Cooper explains that part of the problem presenteeism poses is that it is far more difficult to measure than absence rates, resulting in employers struggling to understand the concept, monitor the scale of the issue or put the right steps in place to help combat it. He stresses that employers should be carrying out regular wellbeing audits to find out their employees’ true perceptions of their work environment.

It would appear that the problems associated with presenteeism are more prevalent in smaller organisations than larger ones. Those with 500+ employees had a significantly higher absence rate of 2.3% according to the ONS, compared to firms with fewer than 25 employees. This suggests that employees of smaller businesses might come under more pressure to make up any hours lost to sickness absence. What’s more, in the case of many of our past clients we’ve observed that those in more senior positions are very prone to displaying presenteeism, which may be attributable to a reluctance to take a day off due to the level of responsibility and workload expected of higher management.

Ironically, Cooper also notes that the most recent research indicates presenteeism actually costs UK businesses more than double what absenteeism does – a very counterproductive concept for small businesses. After all, when you go into work ill it’s unlikely you’ll provide much value – you’re simply turning up for face time. He goes on to say that companies should start to ask themselves the questions: “Are we creating a long-hours culture? Do we have a bullying management style?

Frances O’Grady of trade union body TUC supports this notion, and insists that “people are more likely to go to work when ill than stay home when well”, and that employers need to stop assuming than employees are simply pulling sickies:

“When people are genuinely unwell, they will not be productive at work and organisations need to have an attendance management culture that supports people when they are ill and discourages unhealthy behaviour like presenteeism.”
-Frances O’Grady, general secretary of trade union body TUC

This concept needs addressing, and fast. Our mission is to tackle stress and improve wellbeing and mental health in the workplace, to both of which presenteeism is directly linked. Ultimately, the aim is to create a workplace culture which will not only boost engagement and productivity levels, but also profits.

We desperately need to see more organisations making positive steps to addressing presenteeism, reduce stress and burnout, and improving overall employee wellbeing. There are so many different options available, from psychometric profiling and team constellations, to stress management training and coaching at work.

Contact us today to find out how we can help kick-start a positive change in your business culture.

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