What is presenteeism and how can you avoid it?

Amy Owens

Written By Steph Thomas, AdviserPlus

27th April 2022

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According to the latest Health and Wellbeing at Work report by the CIPD, the UK sickness rate fell to 1.8% in 2020, the lowest recorded level since reporting began in 1995. Coincidentally, (or not as it seems) this was also when the biggest shift in the way we work took place, with 5.6 million people working from home at one point during the pandemic, in the UK.

This has led us to question whether presenteeism – working whilst feeling unwell – could be the cause of this declining absence rate, and if employees are able to do this more frequently because they are now working from home more? The answer could be yes, as, according to a survey by Canada Life UK, more than a third of employees admitted that they worked whilst unwell during the pandemic, which suggests that many people are disregarding their physical and mental health just to make sure they can be present at work.

As we emerge from the pandemic and many organisations have moved to a new hybrid way of working, the problem of presenteeism could continue, in the office or at home, aggravated by a keenness to maintain the flexibility the pandemic introduced, causing employees to show up when not at their best. It’s certainly an increasing concern for HR; presenteeism is harder to manage than its counterpart, absenteeism, where the frequency and impacts are harder to identify, especially now the boundaries of work and home are blurred. So, what can we do to try and spot it happening and what measures can we put in place to try and prevent it?

Spotting presenteeism

  • Visibly not well

Whether you’re heading back into the office, or working remotely and having virtual meetings, you may be able to see when an employee is physically not well. They may look tired, exhausted, pale, or generally not seem themselves.

  • Low absence rate

A low absence rate is usually a reason to celebrate, as traditionally it means you have a healthy and happy workforce, but if your absence rate is exceptionally low it could be a result of presenteeism where employees feel they are unable to take time off if they’re already working from home. It’s important to properly scrutinise your absence rate using people data analytics technology so that you fully understand it. AdviserPlus can help you with this.

  • Low productivity

Presenteeism often means that your employees are there in body but not in mind, and will focus on not feeling well, as opposed to doing their work. Their output may not be up to their usual standard because they’re only showing up to avoid taking a sick day, when they should be taking time off to recover and recuperate.

  • Missing lunch breaks or working longer hours

Surprisingly, if people are logging on after hours or working through their lunch, it could be a sign of presenteeism occurring, as they play catch up to get their work done.

Addressing presenteeism

  1. Ask your employees how they are feeling – Having a view and understanding of your employee landscape will ensure you can spot any potential issues, hopefully before they become more serious, so you can take steps to create a positive morale. Employees that feel secure in their roles and engaged with the work they’re doing, are less likely to be off work or feel like they have to work when they’re not well.
  2. Empower your line managers– If your line managers are equipped with the right knowledge, skills and training to identify unhealthy working habits, they’ll be confident to address any issues within their teams and you can be confident they’ll do so in a compassionate and supportive way.
  3. Managers need to lead by example – Just as it’s important to equip managers with the right skills, it could be a fruitless exercise if they’re not setting the right example to their team. If managers regularly work late or come into work when they’re not well, they could be setting a precedent where employees feel they need to do the same.
  4. Communicate your company polices – Make sure your policies are clear, easily understood and that your managers and employees can easily access them. If it’s well communicated that when you’re not well enough to work, you should be taking time off to get better, it will allow them to feel comfortable doing so.
  5. Create a compassionate culture – By focusing on policies and benefits that increase the health and happiness of your employees, such as flexible working, unlimited holiday, health and wellbeing benefits and paid sick leave, your employees will feel valued and looked after, and they will also be provided with a better work/life balance which naturally increases wellbeing, productivity and performance.
  6. Review workloads – If an employee feels like they’ve got too much work on their plate, they may feel reluctant to take any time off knowing it could be worse on their return. Likewise, it can promote presenteeism if it’s up to their colleagues to pick up the slack when they are absent, leading to feelings of resentment and having a negative effect on morale. Ensure you’ve got processes in place for important work not to be missed if somebody goes off, but don’t over burden the colleagues who are present, as it could be a vicious circle.
  7. Look after employees’ mental wellbeing – Equip your employees with the tools to recognise and look after their mental health; these can include, awareness campaigns, the training of Mental Health First Aiders, clear signposting to where they can access support and information or having an EAP in place.

AdviserPlus can help you if you think you have a presenteeism or absenteeism issue in your business. Get in touch for an informal and confidential chat today info@adviserplus.com.

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