It appears that presenteeism is becoming a greater problem than absenteeism in the UK workplace. Recent research carried out by Corporate Health indicates that the nation is becoming more STOIC (sick though often inbox checking). While the cost of absence is clear, and well measured – the cost of presenteeism is a hidden one that could be causing untold damage to the UK economy.
Too busy to take a sick day
The overwhelming majority of people surveyed claimed that their jobs were far too busy for them to think of taking a day off sick. Interestingly, none said that they were worried about their job, which implies that there may be a certain degree of improving job security in the UK workforce.
What it does imply is that we are becoming a nation of workaholics, unaware of the potential dangers of over-working ourselves. 100% of men and 91% of women said that they would go into work feeling sick, which could lead to increased levels of stress, and potential future long-term sickness and depression.
Indeed, a large majority of people have only taken five days or fewer due to sickness over the last year, with 37% (increasing to 45% of men) not having taken a single sick day. Almost all of us will, at some stage in the year, have fallen ill, whether it be a cold or flu-like symptoms, or potentially something worse.
Capability to cope
The HSE describes stress at work as “the process that arises where work demands of various types and combinations exceed the person’s capacity and capability to cope. It is a significant cause of illness and disease and is known to be linked with high levels of sickness absence.”
What if, however, the sickness absence was not taking place? What if, therefore, the employee, despite being stressed about increased pressure at work or at home, falls ill and comes in to work?
Indeed, the dangers of presenteeism are largely under-appreciated. There is the risk of transmitting illnesses around the office, and there is the potential dip in productivity or risk of error due to a lack in concentration. In fact, by not taking the time to recover from an illness, the employee risks worsening or prolonging it or suffering from exhaustion.
Work as a solution to long-term health problems
Further recent research, this time by the BMJ, highlights presenteeism issues in the healthcare profession, with 26% of healthcare workers reporting to work ill in the last seven days alone.
However, there is evidence that long-term health problems can be helped by a return to work, muddying the waters somewhat. A return to work can give people “a purpose, a routine, and support from colleagues”, improving morale and therefore helping to improve health.
Are we getting it the wrong way round?
Employers need to approach the twin problem of absenteeism and presenteeism with one holistic aim: make the workplace a healthy place. Presenteeism does little to help anyone, so short-term absence, or at the very worst, the opportunity to work from home if the illness is not too severe, is potentially the healthiest option.
Indeed, it could be the most financially sensible option. While we measure absence as a direct cost, we don’t measure the negative impact of presenteeism on our workforce.
For long-term absence, a phased return to work can help an employee get back into a working routine and receive much-needed support from colleagues. Therefore, using an occupational healthcare specialist, ensure that the return to work process is well documented, and well publicised within your business.
The nation likes to work, but let’s help the nation work healthily.
About the author
Gareth Cartman blogs frequently on HR and occupational health-related issues, and is also a fellow of the Institute of Direct Marketing (IDM).