The Perils of Presenteeism in the Workplace

The Perils of Presenteeism in the Workplace

In the pre pandemic world, it was not uncommon for staff to spend at least 40 hours a week in a traditional office setting. For many, being physically present in the office, no matter how unproductive or ill they felt, was ingrained within their daily work life.

Workplaces have undergone significant transformations since March 2020 with more employers embracing remote and hybrid work models. While some employees may spend fewer physical hours in the traditional office, the practice of presenteeism still exists with many employees still coming in to their workplace, or working from home on days when they are genuinely ill. Presenteeism has in some cases simply gone digital, with people responding to emails and messages at all hours of the day and night, sometimes from their sick bed, in an attempt to show how engaged they are.

A recent poll by HR/payroll provider MHR showed that presenteeism remains widespread in the UK, with 71% of people reporting that they have chosen to work despite being unwell. For many, this is due to perceived negative connotations associated with taking sick leave. While some employers may value such dedication, presenteeism can actually do more harm than good.

What is presenteeism?

Quite simply, presenteeism is the opposite of absenteeism. It is when an employee decides to come in to work (or work from home) despite being unwell (or works beyond their working hours). Common reasons for presenteeism include:

  • To save on sick days or to preserve their holiday allowances.
  • For a sense of job security.
  • Out of loyalty to the job or to co-workers.
  • Unmanageable workloads and deadlines.
  • Pressure from supervisor or manager.
  • Financial worries/not being eligible for sick pay
  • Depression, anxiety, stress and other mental health-related issues.

The result is that employees can feel compelled to attend work despite being sick (or work beyond core working hours, such as in the evenings, weekends or during holiday).

Why is it a problem?

While some of these behaviours can offer short term benefits, the reality is that there are many negative consequences of a presenteeism culture at work:

  • It can hide underlying issues, such as unmanageable workloads, unrealistic management expectations or poor management. Depression, anxiety, stress and other mental health conditions, including burn out, are common consequences. Employers have a duty of care towards staff which includes taking steps to manage their health and safety at work and avoid causing harm.
  • It can lead to further deterioration of illness, which can result in longer absence overall.
  • Contagious illnesses (such as COVID-19, flu or norovirus) can pass easily between co-workers (some of whom may be vulnerable or pregnant), which can lead to increased levels of sickness absence across the workforce. That can have a major impact on productivity levels.
  • It can affect performance. If people work when they are unwell (or when they work too many hours) they may find it difficult to concentrate, suffer fatigue, have less patience with colleagues and make mistakes or have accidents. In some environments (such as healthcare or construction), these errors could be life-threatening or fatal.
  • It can also pile pressure on others to behave in the same way, which can create a toxic work environment, negatively affecting staff engagement and morale, leading to higher staff turnover.
  • Failing to manage the underlying causes of presenteeism can ultimately lead to legal claims and liability. Employers have a duty to act in a way that fosters trust and confidence in the working relationship with their employees and are required to take reasonable care of an employee’s health, safety and well being at work. These duties could be breached by an employer setting unrealistic deadlines, failing to provide adequate support for staff, or encouraging staff to work when unwell, running the risk of constructive dismissal, breach of contract, discrimination, or personal injury claims.

How can presenteeism be managed?

Addressing presenteeism is not easy or straightforward. It requires the creation of an environment that focusses on employee health and work-life balance.

Some strategies that can be employed include:

  • Reassuring staff that their wellbeing is a priority and if they are genuinely ill, they should take sick leave. This will help them to feel able to take time off if they need to. Leaders should model healthy work behaviours, which means staying at home (and not logging in) when in poor health.
  • Re-evaluating absence policies and procedures, ensuring that they are readily accessible to staff and that managers are trained on how to implement them in a fair way. Punitive sick leave policies can be harmful as they may discourage employees from taking time off when they need to, leading to situations where absenteeism is simply substituted with presenteeism. Supportive absence policies which are fair, reasonable, flexible and offer adequate sick pay will help curb presenteeism caused by financial worries.
  • Introduction of wellbeing initiatives at work, such as the provision of mental health days, fitness programmes, employee assistance programmes, mental health first aiders and topical webinars and workshops. By addressing the root causes of presenteeism and promoting overall well-being, employers can create a working environment where employees are less likely to work when unwell.
  • Encouraging managers to regularly engage with employees by initiating conversations with them to discuss work and their well-being. Employees who have an open dialogue with their manager are more likely to disclose any illnesses or concerns that they have.
  • Training managers on how they can identify the signs of presenteeism and support staff wellbeing before it becomes an unhealthy pattern. Reminding them of their legal duty to make reasonable adjustments for staff with disabilities to ensure that they are not being substantially disadvantaged in carrying out their role.

Offering flexible work arrangements which can help employees balance their work and personal life, reducing the need for presenteeism. For more advice, please contact a member of our Employment Law Team.

This blog contains general information only and does not constitute legal or other professional advice.

Lesley Grant, Associate: / 0141 221 8012 / Connect with Lesley on LinkedIn