Is presenteeism damaging business?

Are staff feeling more obliged than ever to struggle into work in the recession? A new survey suggests that they are.

Sickness at work


The survey of  39,000 UK workers for leading business psychology company, Robertson Cooper, shows that a quarter of the people polled had recently struggled into work to show their bosses they were present, despite feeling ill.

The research is part of the company’s annual report on employee engagement  and well-being at work in the UK.  Thr employees polled, who worked in both the private and public sector, rated their health and productivity levels over the past three months using Robertson Cooper’s employee engagement and well-being assessment tool, ASSET. They were also asked if they had taken time off during this period and all the results were analysed in order to estimate rates of ‘presenteeism.’ Robertson Cooper says presenteeism is a complex issue, but one of its key features is when people feel compelled to turn up to the office when they are too ill to work and should be at home. It is also a big issue for those who want to work more flexibly, for example, working a day a week or so from home. They argue that they should be judged on their work rather than whether they are in the office or not.

The results of the research show only 50% of UK workers in the sample reported good health, with the remainder describing their health as just ‘alright’ or ‘poor’. However, despite not being at peak fitness, 26% of these employees reported taking no sick leave at all during their last three months at work. They also reported lower productivity than their ‘healthier’ colleagues – with just 38% claiming their productivity was at 90 per cent or above, compared with 51% of workers in the ‘healthy’ group.  In particular, they reported poorer work relationships, a worse work-life balance and more work overload than their healthy counterparts.

Robertson Cooper warns that when employees come to work ill simply to show their faces and work unproductively the implications for company performance, and indeed the economy as a whole, are damaging and costly.

Job insecurity

Professor Ivan Robertson, Managing Director at Robertson Cooper, commented: “Presenteeism in the workplace has a number of causes, one of which is often related to feelings of job insecurity. Recently, this feeling is likely to have been inflamed as a result of the recession. People feel under pressure to be at work; they believe that by showing their faces even when they are ill, they are demonstrating their commitment, despite being unproductive. Businesses can’t afford to ignore this problem.”

“To prevent presenteeism, managers should reward people for the work they deliver, not the hours they put in. People should not feel obliged to work long hours to show their commitment and it’s desirable if genuinely sick workers feel like they should take time off for everyone’s benefit. In the long-term, investing in the health and well-being of workers pays dividends in terms of improved employee engagement and productivity. It delivers considerable savings over and above those caused by driving down absenteeism.

“Most employers focus on reducing absenteeism levels and the associated costs, but often forget that tackling presenteeism is also a significant opportunity to reduce costs and improve productivity. Get both right and the impact on the business can be profound.”

Robertson Cooper is calling for a national debate, looking at how businesses can find the right balance between absenteeism and presenteeism. It says this can be tricky, because there is a natural tension between the two issues – when one goes down the other is likely to go up. A certain level of both is inevitable, but understanding the relationship and finding  the right level of each for specific organisations is the difficult part.

Robertson Cooper is a specialist in employee engagement and well-being in the workplace and was founded in 1999 by Professors Ivan Robertson and Cary Cooper with offices in Manchester and London.  It is also the founder of the Business Well-being Network. 

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