Updated: May 13, 2021
80% of UK employees work when sick and studies have shown that young people are the most likely to keep working when they are unwell. Indeed, a 2019 survey by Love Energy Savings reported that 92% of 18-24-year-olds admitted to working when they should have taken time off for sickness.
What is presenteeism?
Presenteeism is when workers show up to work but, because of either physical or mental illness, are not functioning to their full level. The survey estimated that presenteeism costs the UK economy £15.1 billion every year, making it nearly double the cost of absenteeism.
Further to these already mind-boggling figures, a 2020 report by insurance company Vitality estimated the combined cost of ill-health absence and presenteeism to British businesses in 2019 to be an astounding £92bn per year – an increase of £10bn compared with 2018.
Studies have linked presenteeism to a loss of productivity, poor health and exhaustion. It can show up in a low absence rate, low morale, longer working hours and an increased number of mistakes being made, as people work when they are not fully fit or focused.
According to a 2020 study by CIPD, 89% of those surveyed had observed presenteeism in work over the previous 12 months, with more than a quarter of respondents believing it had increased compared to the previous year. The same survey reported a decreasing rate of absence at work; this is supported by ONS data, which shows that the average number of sickness absence days taken by UK workers has almost halved over the past 25 years.
Of course, positive changes in health and wellbeing may have contributed to the UK’s reduction in sickness absence, but much of the recent data suggests more people are working when they should be taking time off to rest and recover.
As well as affecting their own performance, the impact of presenteeism on others in the workplace should also be taken into account. Thinking of a traditional office environment (remember those?), there is the obvious possibility of infecting others by turning up to work when ill. And, if others are infected and affected, what is the cumulative impact of presenteeism on the productivity of your workforce as a whole?
Vitality equated their cost estimates to productivity and calculated that 38 productive working days per year were lost per employee due to physical and mental health related absence and presenteeism – a huge rise on the 23 working days lost per employee in 2014.
Why do we work when ill?
The Love Energy Savings survey stated the most common cause of presenteeism was not wanting to let your team down (21%), although 10% of people said they had worked when ill due to pressure from their employer. Even during the Covid-19 pandemic when many have worked from home, how often do we hear about people feeling pressure to be present at their desks because their team’s messenger system shows when they are active or away? You may even be feeling that pressure right now, or when you do something perfectly valid like take a lunch break or go for a walk.
The need to be seen to be working can put significant strain on people, particularly if there is a lack of trust in the relationship between a manager and their team. This is accentuated as people have been required to adopt more flexible working patterns, but still feel a need to be seen to be available for colleagues and clients during standard working hours.
Along with presenteeism, ‘leaveism’ – either working when on annual leave or outside of contracted hours, or using annual leave when you are too unwell to work - is another issue with almost three quarters of people having seen it in the previous year (CIPD, 2020).
Almost half (49%) of respondents to the CIPD’s 2019 ‘Health and Well-being at Work’ survey reported employees working outside contracted hours to get work done, and 24% stated that employees use allocated time off (e.g. holiday) to work.
Global data from Microsoft on the first six months of the Covid-19 pandemic showed a 69% increase in MS Teams chats per person outside normal working hours. Of course, this may be due to companies adopting more flexible working patterns, but it could also be due to people working longer hours now that technology provides all-hours access to almost anyone and everyone.
What can we do?
With the shift to home-working and the accelerated roll-out of technology further blurring the lines between our work and ‘home’ lives, it is vital that we take steps to focus on our wellbeing. There is a requirement for leaders and managers to recognise key signs of presenteeism and leaveism and a responsibility on them to understand the causes.
As it becomes harder to spot presenteeism in a remote working environment, managers are required to make an extra effort to check in with team members. Leaders must create the culture that supports health and wellbeing at work, including when working remotely, and managers should be supported as well as the wider workforce. Using technology to adopt more flexible working hours shouldn’t result in an expectation for people to available every hour of the day, and employees should be encouraged to take their allocated annual leave.
Investing in health and wellbeing programmes not also supports employees’ productivity and performance, but it also improves your organisation’s profitability. Deloitte have found that employers will see an average 5:1 return on investment for mental health interventions, as absence, presenteeism and staff turnover reduce. The same study showed that offering early-stage support around mental health and emotional wellbeing could have a return as high as 8:1.
While organisations can create an environment that supports employees’ health and wellbeing, it is also up to us to be more self-aware in looking after ourselves.
By building our self-awareness, we can connect with our purpose, be true to our values, and understand the roles, relationships and resources that we need to successfully achieve our goals. The awareness to understand our strengths and weaknesses and to know what we really want to achieve in life, will enable us to prioritise and focus on the steps we need to take to get there. It is also vital that we manage and build our energy levels throughout our journey and take the required rest and recovery along the way.
Enhancing our own self-awareness also has the positive impact of increasing our awareness of others. Therefore, it not only helps us perform better as individuals but it can help us to help others become better, improving the connections and performance of the team and organisation as a whole.
Overall, evidence points to a trend of increasing presenteeism and the negative impact it has on health, wellbeing, productivity and performance. Despite research indicating this is a significant issue, only a third of private sector companies reported taking action to combat presenteeism, while the figure was down at just 23% of public sector organisations taking action against presenteeism.
Our Personal Leadership programme enables you to build your self-awareness and identify key actions that will transform your ‘whole life’ performance. Using the 6Rs exploration framework, as well as a focus on energy, life balance and reflective learning, the personalised coaching programme will enable you to turn up at your best – in work and in life.
To find out how we can support you or your organisation, please visit https://www.personal-leadership.co.uk/.
Love Energy Savings survey (2019)
Vitality, Britain’s Healthiest Workplace (2019)
CIPD, Health & Well-being at Work (2019)
CIPD, Health & Well-being at Work (2020)
Office for National Statistics (ONS), Sickness Absence in the Labour Market
Deloitte, Mental Health and Employers: Refreshing the Case for Investment (2020)