Firstly, what is presenteeism?

Presenteeism refers to the situation where employees come into work, but they are not as productive as normal due to feeling unwell.

This poses a problem. If employees feel that they have no choice but to come into work, the company’s productivity is not only lowered, but the unwell employee could potentially be putting others at risk of catching the same illness. The company’s productivity is not only lowered, but the unwell employee could potentially be putting others at risk of catching the illness.

What’s more, this isn’t just an internal problem. In industries of customer service, such as hospitality or care, customers may be upset if they are served by an unwell employee. This lowers customer satisfaction and puts them at risk of catching the illness too, lowering the reputation of the business.

Presenteeism is often cited as the biggest threat to workplace productivity in the UK. In fact, research revealed that in 2018, presenteeism and ill health cost UK businesses an estimated £61 billion a year – with mental health a significant driver of productivity loss, accounting for £38bn of the total cost to businesses.

Man ill while working

And what are the causes?

You may be asking yourself, if people are feeling unwell “why are they still coming into work”? There are a number of reasons:

  • Employer expectations – Workplaces which appear to have little tolerance for sick days can lead to unwell employees coming into work due to fear of appearing less committed, receiving disciplinary action, or even losing their jobs
  • Abuse or harassment for taking sick days – People will be reluctant to take sick days if they feel like they’re going to receive backlash, either from colleagues or managers
  • Little or no paid sick days – Workplace cultures differ greatly and that includes policies on sick days – in certain industries workers receive no paid sick leave, therefore they'll come in to avoid loss of pay
  • Large workloads, understaffing and time pressures - If teams are experiencing very large workloads, one employee taking a sick day could set the team behind and put extra pressure on other employees – leading to feelings of guilt
  • Strong motivation and commitment to the organisation – When employees are highly motivated, they may come into work even when they aren’t feeling their best because they want to continue with their tasks and perform for the company
  • Loyalty and self-importance – Some may come into work even when ill as they ‘don’t want to let the team down’, think that no one else can do their job, or that the business will suffer if they aren’t there
  • Trying to ‘save-up’ time off – In families where both parents work full time, employees may go into work when they’re feeling sick so that they feel able to stay at home another time when their child is ill

And what impacts can this have?

Group of people unwell in work

The impacts of presenteeism are widespread and can create a vicious cycle, including:

  • Deterioration in the physical and/or mental health of employees
  • Increase in risk to customers, clients or patients due infection, injury or errors
  • Illness having longer lasting effects in the workplace – If employees don’t give themselves time to recover, illnesses can last longer and have more severe effects on the business as they spread
  • Impaired performance causing errors that take time and money to fix
  • A culture of presenteeism can be created – A culture of presenteeism can mean that no one wants to be seen to be ‘slacking’ by taking a break (even when it is very much needed) when others are putting the hours in, creating more widespread issues

Can you measure presenteeism?

Putting a monetary value on presenteeism is difficult – unlike its counterpart absenteeism, where you’re able to simply look at the number of employees who haven’t shown up to work. With presenteeism, the frequency and its impact are harder to find.

Presenteeism is more common in workplaces where long working hours are seen as the norm and where working demands take priority over employee wellbeing. It can also show signs of job insecurity.

One way to measure presenteeism is to find out how your employees are feeling. When your employees are happy, feeling secure in their job and engaged in their work – they are more likely to be productive and in turn, reduce absenteeism and improve presenteeism rates. You need to understand how employees are feeling, what makes them satisfied at work and what they feel could be improved.

Conduct regular employee surveys that include questions surrounding wellbeing, management, work-life balance and workplace culture to create a clear view of the employee landscape.

someone being ill while talking to colleagues

Preventing presenteeism

If this is a problem you’re experiencing in your workplace, there are several solutions you can put in place to reduce the issue. At the end of the day, employees get sick but it's how employers handle it that matters.

It’s important to note, before you can put any solutions in place, you have to recognise the problem. If you don’t – your business will continue to experience loss of productivity. Workplace leaders and HR need to understand the problem and why this is occurring before taking any further steps.

Here are some ways to reduce presenteeism in your workplace: 

Communicate company policy

If you’re clear with your workforce about where the company stands on employees coming into work ill, employees should be aware of when they should come into work – and when they should stay away.

Clearly define and communicate your policies, such as sick pay and time off allowances – and allow employees to ask any questions they may have. It’s also important to communicate the impact that unwell employees coming into work can have on fellow employees and customers.

When you are clear on where you stand on illness and working – employees will feel comfortable to stay home and recover when they’re ill, rather than fearing any consequences.

Provide healthcare benefits

People will often come into work if they are experiencing long waiting times for a GP appointment or if they aren’t able to get an appointment outside of working hours. This not only adds to recovery times, but stress can build up while waiting for a diagnosis.

By offering an alternative, such as access to an online GP service – you provide your people with quick, same-day GP appointments and immediate access to prescriptions. This reduces recovery time and employees are able to return to work quickly without the stress of waiting for a physical appointment.

You can also help employees be more proactive by giving them the resources to manage their physical and mental health. Whether it's discounts on fitness equipment, access to yoga classes, or the use of mental wellbeing apps - there's plenty of things you can offer, which will help create a happier and healthier workforce. 

Managers must set good examples

If managers are coming into work when they are ill – employees are likely to feel as though they have to do the same. Leaders must set a good example and stay at home when they are unwell.

If there are any urgent outstanding issues that managers feel they’re the only ones able to tackle, this should be done over the phone or via video from home.

Remote working

Create a workplace culture of care

Presenteeism rates increase if the workplace doesn’t focus on a culture of care for the wellbeing of their employees.

Create a workplace culture that focuses on care and compassion for all employees. You can do this by focusing on elements such as flexible working arrangements when possible, unlimited holiday policies, health and wellbeing benefits, and paid sick leave. This helps employees know that the company prioritises the health and happiness of its people.

Employees will not only be more engaged and loyal to a company that focuses on promoting workplace wellbeing, but productivity and performance will also increase.

Review your team’s workloads

Presenteeism can often occur when employees feel like they can’t afford to take time off due to heavy workloads, looming deadlines or not wanting to burden co-workers with their absence.

It’s important that managers know how much work employees have on their plates so they are able to help manage it. Holding frequent one-to-ones between managers and employees helps to highlight if employees are in need of any mental wellbeing support. This should help to reduce work-related stress and help to promote healthy working practises and wellbeing.

Finally, stay on top of the problem

Being aware of presenteeism and staying vigilant can be the key to reducing the problem. Managers should send home sick employees, which helps to spread the message to that employee and others that anyone feeling unwell should not be in work.

Additionally, if you are able to, offering the option of working from home when under the weather can give employees another choice if they do want to still work, without risking infecting others. 

Finally, look into launching an employee assistance programme (EAP) to support employee wellbeing on a larger scale.



Put wellbeing front and centre with Perkbox

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  • Prevent employee burnout and absenteeism
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