When an employee stays off work due to illness, they are absent and they are demonstrating ‘absenteeism’. When they turn up to work despite being ill, or work excessive hours for no good reason, they are said to be displaying ‘presenteeism’. And presenteeism is not good for business.
When someone is ill they may choose to still attend work – they are present. This doesn’t however mean that they are productive. The Centre for Mental Health suggests that absenteeism caused by mental illness costs the UK £8.4 billion per year whereas presenteeism costs £15.1 billion a year. So why do employees feel compelled to attend work when they are ill?
Research suggests some reasons: that staff don’t want to let their team down, they’re worried about deadlines they must meet, or they feel that they are expected by management to be in work ‘no matter what’. Some staff feel that if they are absent due to genuine sickness, this will be held against them at some future date. They feel perhaps that this will be used in determining who is made redundant.
So, as a result of the emotion of fear, we have a situation where people come to work when they are ill.
Presenteeism extends further than this, though. Some staff feel the need to get into work earlier than their boss, or stay at work later, or both. In these cases, they are ‘present’ for long hours. Why do people feel the need to overtly and falsely display their commitment in this way? Research shows that where people work long hours this is detrimental to their health; they suffer fatigue and stress. Managers need employees to be more productive, not work for longer.
By causing people to come to work when they are unwell or very stressed there is a huge risk that the sickness absence will turn into a prolonged period of absence. It’s much better to deal with issues early by talking to staff and understanding their circumstances. Regular dialogue will allow managers to gauge when staff are struggling.
Presenteeism is a well-being issue that needs to be addressed by every organisation.
So what can be done to change this state of affairs? How can we help employees understand that it’s okay to be absent if they are genuinely sick? And how can we help employees understand that it is okay to go home at a reasonable time without worrying what the boss will think?
Fundamentally, it’s the company that has the problem.
The culture within the organisation needs to allow people to feel that they can be absent if they are genuinely ill. And illness includes physical illnesses such as broken bones or flu and psychological and physiological illnesses caused by stress.
Managers need to talk to their staff regularly; by doing this they will know when people are struggling, when people are feeling ‘under the weather’. Therefore they’ll know when somebody is likely to be absent for a short period for a genuine reason.
It’s important to build trust and respect between managers and staff. The manager needs to be comfortable that when an individual says they are too ill to come into work, that is indeed the case.
There are many strategies that can be put in place to help people manage their sickness absence.
Sometimes employees may be incapacitated and unable to travel to work. Perhaps in this case they could work at home. This would avoid them experiencing a feeling of panic that work won’t get done. And it means that they can manage their illness while doing some productive work. This leads to less stress for employees and is therefore a good well-being intervention. Both manager and sick employee win.
Managers also need to be clear about absence. The meaning of ‘authorised’ and ‘unauthorised’ absence need to be defined and communicated to staff. Where employees have unauthorised absence or too much sickness absence, this needs to be managed and firms should have a robust processes in place to do just that.
Employees need to know that it’s okay to be absent in a genuine illness scenario, but it’s not okay to “throw a sickie”. Similarly, the conditions under which staff can take a ‘duvet day’ need careful definition. Some staff also believe that they are ‘due’ some sick days; that since the firm budgets for a small number of absences per person per year, this is in some way a right. Such attitudes should be changed through clear communications to staff, and reinforcement of messages by managers.
Managing by Measuring
So, how can a firm measure the success of their initiatives to avoid presenteeism, whether though sickness or extended hours?
To answer this, managers need to understand the culture in their firm and how staff feel about issues like trust and long hours. Anonymous surveys can be used. Whilst there is a plethora of free tools on the web, managers should choose and administer their surveys with care. For enhanced confidence in results it’s often best to employ an external agency or consultant.
Managers must keep absence statistics. Absences may decrease and be heralded as a good thing by HR and senior managers. But managers should have methods of telling if this reduction is caused by presenteeism.
Presenteeism is not good for business
The Health & Safety Executive has developed a tool that TimelessTime recommends. This indicator tool assists in helping firms understand how to manage potential stressors within the firm. For practical guidance on using the HSE Management Standards Indicator tool checkout this blog.
So, in conclusion, presenteeism is the firm’s problem, not the employee’s. It’s up to the firm to implement such changes as necessary to allow people time to recover where they have a genuine illness. It’s also up to the firm to ensure that people do not feel they have to be at work before their boss and leave after them.
Managers should be clear: high trust and respect yields competitive advantage through better commitment and motivation.