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Five ways to reduce presenteeism in the workplace

Like coffee machine breakdowns, train delays and printer jams, absenteeism is an unavoidable part of working life. Absence, however, is only one part of the picture when it comes to employee health.

Presenteeism, or sickness presence, is the act of showing up for work without being productive, generally because ill-health prevents it. Presenteeism in the workplace is not a new phenomenon – anyone who’s ever dragged themselves to work with a splitting headache could tell you that. But, while employee’s sickness absence levels are routinely measured as part of health and productivity monitoring, the less tangible levels of sickness presence are often ignored. One of the reasons that the CIPD’s most recent report on absence management found that a third of organisations have reported an increase in people coming to work while ill.

Why you should care about presenteeism

Those with more traditional views might hold that employees coming to work while under the weather is no bad thing: it shows a certain level of dedication, after all, and it means absence levels are down. However, the reality is that sick employees are likely to be ineffective, and their impaired performance could lead to errors in judgement that cost time and money to fix.

In fact, there’s a mounting body of evidence that the segment of work that’s lost to absenteeism is dwarfed when compared to the productivity lost to presenteeism. A report from the Work Foundation found that the cost of presenteeism in the workplace could account for one-and-a-half times the cost of sick leave.

Coming to work poorly is also linked to higher levels of employee sick leave in the longer term. According to the CIPD’s report, employers that notice an increase in presenteeism are nearly twice as likely to report an increase in stress-related absence. And they’re more than twice as likely to report an increase in mental health problems among staff.

Employees get sick – it’s how employers handle it that matters

So, why does it happen? CIPD’s findings show that presenteeism is more common in companies where long working hours are seen as the norm, and where operational demands take precedence over employee wellbeing. Sickness presence is also often a manifestation of job insecurity and, unsurprisingly, is significantly related to redundancies. Previous research from CIPD has found that organisations that are expecting layoffs in the coming six months are twice as likely to report an increase in people coming to work ill.

How to tackle presenteeism in your workforce

Properly managing presenteeism not only saves companies money in the short and longer term, it vastly contributes to employee engagement and productivity. Here are five ways to help you reduce sickness presence in your company.

1.       Don’t ignore output in favour of input

In some organisations, employees who come to work when sick are viewed as dedicated, and it’s held as the norm that team leaders soldier through illness to get the job done. Feeling real or imagined pressure to come to work when ill reduces employee morale and negatively impacts physical and mental wellbeing. Make it clear that your company expects sick employees to stay home and recover.

2.       Time for a policy overhaul?

Absence management policies that focus solely on sick leave provide only a partial picture of your company’s health-related productivity losses. Punitive sick leave policies, especially, can do more harm than good as they may discourage employees from taking leave when they need to, leading to situations where absenteeism is simply substituted with presenteeism. Ensure that your line managers understand the relationship between absenteeism and presenteeism, that they’re supported to adopt a more flexible approach to absence, and that they provide support to employees making a return to work after a period of illness.

3.       Be aware of causes

High workload demands can cause employees to avoid taking time off when they need it because they’re worried about deadlines or overburdening co-workers in their absence. The ways in which line managers facilitate the management of employees’ workloads, and how they communicate and provide support play a big role in the amount of work-related stress people experience. It’s crucial your managers are aware of organisational and managerial causes of work-related stress and ill health and have the soft skills to promote positive working practice and wellbeing.

4.       Recognise the symptoms

Employees with health problems, especially mental-health related ones, often feel unable to disclose them to their manager. And managers are rarely trained to support them effectively if or when they do. It’s vital that your managers are educated to notice the signals associated with employees experiencing high levels of stress or mental health problems, and that they feel equipped to have open and supportive conversations with them about their health. Workplace training and awareness raising of common mental and physical health issues will help reduce stigma and provide people with a better understanding of workplace wellbeing.

5.       Examine your company’s wellbeing programme

Barclays estimates that poor employee financial wellbeing accounts for a 4% reduction in organisational productivity. Does your company’s wellbeing policy consider the stresses your employees face inside and outside of work? A strategic policy that takes account of social, physical, mental and financial stressors and offers appropriate support will go a long way towards reducing the impact of presenteeism. Programmes promoting exercise, counselling or financial management can help prevent illnesses and reduce the impact of long-term conditions, while access to consultations for common conditions like sleep disorders and allergies can have a huge impact on people’s productivity.

If presenteeism isn’t already on your radar, it should be. Making appropriate changes to line manager training and addressing problematic aspects of workplace culture will help ensure your workforce is healthier and more motivated in the long term.