Sick staff toiling away as levels of presenteeism soar

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Presenteeism among UK workers is on the rise, with the number of organisations witnessing staff working while ill more than tripling since 2010, the CIPD’s Health and Wellbeing at Work survey today revealed.

Almost nine in 10 (86 per cent) of more than 1,000 HR and L&D professionals who responded to the survey said they had observed presenteeism – where sick staff carry on working rather than taking time off to recover – in their organisation in 2017, compared with 72 per cent in 2016, and just 26 per cent in 2010.

Rachel Suff, senior employment relations adviser at the CIPD, told People Management that the report highlighted the “endemic” nature of people coming into work despite suffering from illness.

“We had expected presenteeism to fall off with the end of the economic recession, because job insecurity can be a real driver for turning up to work when you shouldn’t be there – but it has only increased with time, so we can’t blame that any more,” she said.

President of the CIPD, Professor Sir Cary Cooper, added: “There might be managers who say having greater numbers of staff in the office is good – but that’s a terrible way of looking at this. Research on presenteeism shows that even if you are in the office you are not delivering any added value to the organisation, because your productivity is so low.”

High-pressure cultures and heavy workloads are not only pushing unwell employees into the office. The survey also found that workers are using their annual leave to complete backlogged tasks – a growing problem dubbed ‘leaveism’ – with more than two-thirds (69 per cent) of respondents witnessing this in their organisation over the last year.

However, despite increasing awareness of work-related stress and mental ill-health, which the survey respondents identified as a leading cause of sickness absence, the number of organisations actively discouraging practices such as presenteeism has almost halved in the last two years.

Just a quarter (25 per cent) of survey respondents who said they had witnessed presenteeism had also seen their organisation taking steps to combat it, such as sending unwell employees home, in 2017, compared to 48 per cent in 2016. Similarly, only 27 per cent of those who witnessed leaveism said their company was taking action to tackle it.

“The intentions are good, but the practical implementation is bad,” Cooper said. “It all comes back to the line managers – who should have the emotional intelligence to recognise that their employees are not coping, and make the delivery of more manageable workloads a priority.”

Those at the top of organisations must also commit to delivering sustained wellbeing change, Suff added, rather than relying on HR to implement standalone health and wellbeing actions.

“Health and wellbeing initiatives or great benefits are not going to be the key influencer: there are stronger factors at play, like the amount of work employees face, the pressure of deadlines and the behaviour that leaders role model,” Suff said.

“Changing those deeper organisational factors will be far more impactful on unhealthy behaviour than unsupported initiatives. It’s great if organisations do have those initiatives, but they will only land in the right place with the right leadership and culture – and that means those at the top realising the benefits and using their influence to drive that change.”

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