An employee with a chesty cough comes into work because he feels he has too much to do to take time off. He infects several of his colleagues who all end up taking time off to recover. Much of the work he does while poorly is not up to scratch, as illness and fatigue interfere with his focus and concentration.
This is a story that HR professionals know all too well. However hard you might try to encourage those who are genuinely ill to stay at home, the scourge of presenteeism - dragging yourself into work when you are unfit for it - continues to spread.
Minds as well as bodies
And being unfit for work is not just about colds and coughs. Physical illness is a leading cause of presenteeism but so, increasingly, is mental ill health. A 2018 survey from Canada Life Group Insurance found that more than a fifth of UK employees (22%) went to work when they felt mentally unfit for it, a 4% rise on the previous year.
Meanwhile, the most recent Health and Wellbeing at Work survey from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that the incidence of presenteeism tripled between 2010 and 2018. That figure includes those who went to work despite symptoms of either physical or mental ill health, and the two are often related. The organisation said that “presenteeism is associated with increases in reported common mental health conditions as well as stress-related absence, which are among the top causes of long-term sickness absence.”
Mental ill health “not taken seriously”
In the Canada Life study, a fifth of respondents said they were more likely to go into work with a mental health problem than a physical illness. A significant number - 15% - felt their boss and workmates wouldn’t take them seriously if they took time off for their mental wellbeing.
Mental illness is not infectious, at least not in the traditional sense. But in every other respect coming into work when you feel mentally unfit for it is as counterproductive as trudging into the office with flu. Workers who force themselves to work despite mental health issues will often make their condition worse. At the same time, they are highly unlikely to be operating at their productive best.
Why is presenteeism so common?
So why do we do it? Why force ourselves into the office when we are not well enough to work? The simple answer is that we do it because we think we have to. Job insecurity, organisational culture and managers who themselves come to work when ill all drive presenteeism. One study (Baker-McClearn et al, 2010) found that, especially in private organisations, attendance at all costs is still routinely associated with loyalty and commitment to the cause.
Workers are also acutely aware of prevailing economic conditions - and act accordingly. That was demonstrated during the global financial crisis when incidence of sickness absence in the UK dropped to a record low. The clear inference is that insecurity drove genuinely ill employees into work out of fear for their jobs.
The sad irony is that workers who go to work unwell are likely to prolong or exacerbate their illness, and be less productive for longer. That’s true of a cold, and it’s even more true of mental health issues like stress, anxiety or depression, for which work may be a root cause.
What can organisations do?
Presenteeism is bad for employee health and bad for business. Poorly workers are not good workers. That’s just as true for mental as physical illness.
The first thing to note is that, according to the CIPD research, employers are not currently doing enough to curb the scourge of presenteeism. Only a quarter of organisations that had witnessed presenteeism had taken steps to combat it.
So, what can organisations do to discourage presenteeism…?
● Develop a policy on presenteeism and make everyone in the organisation aware of it. Remind all staff that they are not expected to come into work when they are genuinely too ill to do so. That goes for mental as well as physical ill health.
● Train managers to spot signs of stress and other mental health problems. Encourage staff to look out for colleagues who appear to be struggling.
● Manage workloads properly. Presenteeism and stress are often the result of unrealistic workloads and deadlines.
● Cut presenteeism off at source. Understand that, although your business may derive some short-term gain from workers who come in early, leave late, work through lunch and take laptops home at weekends, those workers risk stress, anxiety and burnout. Your most productive employees are likely to be the ones with a healthy work/life balance.
● Consider implementing a Workplace Health Promotion (WHP) scheme. Encourage physical exercise during breaks, healthy eating, and lunch hours spent away from desks. This will help staff avoid illness in the first place. It also sends a message that the organisation takes staff wellbeing seriously.
● Consider introducing flexi-time, occasional remote working or other initiatives that can help staff more easily combine work and domestic responsibilities.
● Create a mental health policy. Ensure managers and staff know where to go for support and information when required. Get senior managers on board to act as champions and role models.
Most of all, be clear about what presenteeism means. Nobody really wants to go to work when they’re sick. If employees are regularly coming to work when they are not fit for it, your corporate culture needs to change. It’s time to put presenteeism out of its misery.
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