Presenteeism – present at work but not productive 

Turning up to work ill or working late is usually nothing but counter-productive.

The CIPD’s 2018 Health and Well-being at Work report shows that 86% of organisations observed “presenteeism” among their workforce last year, compared to 72% in 2016 and just 26% in 2010.

“The term ‘presenteeism’ was originally used to describe the issue of employees coming into work while not physically or mentally well, instead of staying at home and recuperating,” says Steve Thompson, managing director at Forward Role Recruitment.

The term now also covers employees staying in the office longer than required to prove they work hard. Often, however, they are merely putting in face time without doing anything productive.

The pressure’s on

Productivity and performance consultant Abigail Ireland says “face time” is still a big issue in the UK: “The old school approach to management requires staff to show commitment and good work ethic by getting to work early and leaving late.”

In fact, according to a survey by Totaljobs, as many as 45% of accountants feel pressure to work overtime, worrying their boss or colleagues might think they aren’t working hard enough if they leave on time.

Bosses set the tone for this kind of work culture. “If the staff see their managers – and peers – staying late every day, they’re likely to be doing the same for fear of job security and concerns about career progression,” Ireland says.

Similarly, people feel under pressure to come to work when ill. Bupa’s research shows that 64% of UK employees have done so in the last twelve months, and that nearly a third have decided to “soldier on” against medical advice.

Mike Blake, wellbeing lead at business performance consultancy Willis Towers Watson says that more than half of those who do take their doctor’s advice to stay at home decide to return to work before they have fully recovered. “Our research suggests that many organisations have negative attitudes – either perceived or real – towards sick leave.”

45% of accountants feel pressure to work overtime

The culture of ‘busy’

Willis Towers Watson’s research also shows that people tend to turn up for work when unwell if they worry about letting their colleagues down, and if they are concerned about their workload and deadlines.

Ireland says this happens when people are made to feel they are irreplaceable and that the office will fall apart without them. “Over recent years, the practice of downsizing and overloading existing employees with more responsibilities has exacerbated this sense of dependency.”

The technology fuels presenteeism, too. “Email and instant chat channels encourage an unhealthy addiction to immediate responses and it’s now perfectly normal for staff to always be ‘on’, checking emails after hours and even on holiday,” says Ireland.

Flexible and remote working can also compound the problem. “With increasing workloads, many employees struggle to effectively manage the blurred boundaries between work and personal time,” Ireland says.

A vicious circle

While coming into the office with a minor ailment isn’t likely to affect someone’s ability to do their job properly, attending work with a more serious illness should be out of the question.

“It affects staff morale, productivity and engagement levels,” says Blake. He adds: “It also delays recovery, increasing the chances of a prolonged illness, and puts others at risk of catching the illness.”

The knock-on effect on others mustn’t be underestimated.

“A loss of morale can often be as infectious as a cold,” says Thompson. “Also, if one of your staff passes on the illness, you will see reduced productivity across the board.”

Working all hours is equally counter-productive.

Ireland says: “It doesn’t prove anything about an individual’s true performance, output or quality of work. Instead, it’s a vicious cycle that creates more work and more stress, impacting relationships, weight, heart health and mental clarity. When people lose their sense of work/life balance and struggle to switch off, they can’t get quality sleep. This leads to tiredness, low energy, low creativity, irritability, poor focus and mistakes.”

Thompson points out that presenteeism can actually become more expensive for a business than other employee health-related costs.

Put a lid on it

It’s clear that presenteeism is a threat to employee wellbeing, and that working long hours doesn’t always bear good results.

So what can you do to combat presenteeism among your staff?

First and foremost, lead by example and go home at a decent time, encouraging others to do the same. “Make sure your staff know that quality of output is more important than hours spent at the desk and that leaving work on time actually shows that they are getting the job done in less time,” says Ireland.

At the same time, remember that everyone has their own working style and personal circumstances to manage. Ireland says: “Some people are night owls while others are morning larks. Give them permission to work when they can perform at their best. If you trust them to deliver results, the hours worked should be irrelevant.”

It should go without saying, but don’t set them unrealistic deadlines. “Be reasonable and you will avoid ‘firefighting’ behaviour,” says Ireland.

Your staff must also be reassured that it’s really ok to take sick leave and to stay at home until they are fully recovered. “Keep in touch during their absence ensuring that they don’t feel pressured to come back to work too soon,” says Blake.

Iwona Tokc-Wilde is a business journalist.

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