Presenteeism: tackling the hidden cost of sickness

Written by
Changeboard Team

15 Aug 2011

15 Aug 2011 • by Changeboard Team

Do your employees come to work sick?

A 2010 report by The Work Foundation estimated that employees coming into work when unwell are costing the economy £19.5bn a year, compared to the £13bn that absence is estimated to cost. The research also showed that 45% of employees reported one or more days of sickness presence, compared with 18% reporting sickness absence over the same period.

The TUC also conducted some research in 2010 that showed that around a fifth of public sector employees had worked when ill during the previous month, while more than four in 10 had done so over the previous year - as well as more than a third of private sector employees.

What's the cost of presenteeism?

Many organisations are not aware of the full impact of sickness presence. After all, surely if employees are in work, even if they are less productive than normal, that is still preferable to them being absent, right? Unfortunately it's not that simple. As well as prompting higher levels of absence, presenteeism is also a drain on productivity and competitiveness. There is also the fact that sickness presence can be an indicator of a workplace with high levels of perceived pressure and stress.

Sickness presence is also generally more common in more senior staff members. Tellingly, The Work Foundation research also revealed that higher levels of presenteeism were associated with lower manager assessed performance, reduced psychological wellbeing and higher levels of sickness absence.

Get to the bottom of the issues

So, what can be done to tackle this problem? While there are recognised and effective ways to measure absence, presenteeism is more difficult to quantify. This is especially true as a lot of presenteeism can be characterised around psychological issues – such as perceived pressure not to be absent, especially during tough economic times.
However, that is not to say that nothing can be done to combat the issue. But to do so effectively, employers need to explore the reasons behind presenteeism – for example any work-related triggers. One hugely important factor is culture. Having an open and flexible culture can make a huge difference. For example if you reward people for coming in early and staying late no matter what, then people will think that is expected of them. Many also fear that illness is perceived as weakness and that if they’re out of sight they’re out of mind.

Offer flexible working practices

Instead, if organisations can demonstrate that that trust their employees to effectively manage their workload and offer flexible working practices, then a culture shift can be achieved. Where there is flexibility, good management and workers feel more in control, then motivation, job satisfaction and productivity can be improved.

Senior management can also help by practicing what they preach, and send a message that while working hard is to be encouraged, over-working and especially doing so to the detriment of ones health is not.

Educate line managers

It's also important to ensure that absence management and indeed wider health and wellbeing policies are understood and embraced by managers and line managers in particular.

This is especially important in terms of making sure that line managers are equipped to deal with supporting employees suffering from stress.

Consider counselling services

The Work Foundation study also found that those employees who were finding it difficult to make ends meet, who were unable to save and who were worried about debt had a significantly higher number of sickness presence days than those without those issues.

Perhaps if employees had more, and better, access to support such as counselling services, then sickness presence and indeed absence could be reduced. It's worth bearing in mind that by tackling the underlying factors related to presenteeism, you’re helping to reduce absence too.

Link health, presence & performance

In fact, efforts to reduce presenteeism could be seen as a chance to look more innovatively at health management and in particular, to focus on the link between health, presence and performance. There is certainly a greater role for wider health monitoring and evaluation to play, to accurately assess levels of employee health and wellbeing and to evaluate the effectiveness of any interventions.

Ultimately, it's imperative that businesses recognise they have a responsibility to ensure they understand how to create the best, most productive working environment for employees.