• International Workplace
  • 30 January 2018

To be or not to be... in the office – the rise of presenteeism

We’ve all been there… you’re not feeling well; the eyes are streaming; the throat is sore; you’re aching all over… but there’s work to be done, so despite feeling rubbish, you head into your workplace (or stay late) to finish it.  From your perspective, you’re doing the right thing – if you don’t do it, it won’t get done. Or if you don’t do it now, you’ll have to do it later, or you’ll let your manager or the company or the team down! 

This is a typical example of presenteeism, and it’s on the rise. Despite the employee wanting to help the business, going into work when unwell is actually linked to a reduction in productivity, workplace morale, health and safety. 

It’s no mystery then, as to why presenteeism is often cited as being one of the biggest threats to UK workplace productivity, and this is a huge concern at a time when increasing efficiency and productivity is a key strategic goal for businesses in all sectors. 

Recent research cited by Bupa1 suggests that 64% of UK employees have gone to work despite being unwell.  Furthermore, a third of employees still head to work when suffering from back or joint pain; and 29% go in when suffering from mental health issues such as depression.  Reasons for going in ranged from having too much work to be able to take time off (20%) to being worried colleagues/management would not believe they were genuinely ill (16%).  Some went in because they felt anxious about job security (13%).

So what? you might ask – at least they are still going in and working.  In reality though, there is a huge impact.  Not only are your staff present but not efficient due to illness, they could be impacting on your business in all sorts of other ways:

  • A longer recovery period – if employees are not getting the downtime they actually need to recover, their illness could steadily get worse. Which means a longer recovery time overall, and greater impact on your business as a result.
  • Passing it on – germs like to move from person to person, so one employee who comes in with a cough or bug, can easily pass it on. Suddenly, you have a whole team out of action!  If that one employee had just stayed home, this may not have happened.
  • Lower morale – if staff see presenteeism as their only option, their morale will be flat, and this quickly has a knock-on effect on others in the department. It’s hard for staff to remain focused and motivated when others around them are not.  Worst case scenario, it spreads through the business and the whole atmosphere is dragged down.
  • Unsafe work areas – if someone is physically or mentally unwell, they are more prone to having or causing accidents. That’s a risk you can’t afford not to manage!
  • Business values and integrity – values are brought to life by your people. If they see their managers and leaders dragging themselves to work when they should be recovering from illness at home, they are likely to do the same. ‘Knackered’ staff cannot bring your values to life efficiently! There is a negative impact, which can be seen and felt by your clients, customers, competitors.

Recognise any of these signs yet?  What can you do about it?

There are lots of steps you can put into place if you recognise presenteeism in your workplace. 

Communicate your expectations.

Make it clear that you expect sick employees to stay at home until they are well enough to return and demonstrate this through your culture and your managers. If the leaders are role modelling presenteeism, staff will feel they need to do the same.  Allowing staff to feel that they won’t be thought of negatively can help turn the situation around.

Recognise signs of stress.

Wellbeing is an important buzz word at the moment, but organisations tend to focus on physical health – there is still very limited awareness of mental health issues, and staff rarely feel able to discuss such conditions with managers openly.  By educating and equipping managers to deal with mental and physical issues (with HR and occupational health support), this can also have a positive effect on lowering presenteeism.

What’s your company culture?

If your culture encourages presenteeism, it’s time to do something about it!  Changing culture is not something you can achieve overnight – some research suggests it takes seven years to change company culture – but every step in the right direction helps.  Encouraging all managers to adopt open door policies can improve communication and help boost morale – all useful to reducing presenteeism.

Work–life balance.

Encouraging work–life balance is critical for a happier, healthier and more productive workforce.  You don’t have to allow everyone a six-month sabbatical – simply encouraging all staff to take a lunch break away from their workplace; to switch off and not send emails after hours; and take their full holiday entitlement can all help.  Considering and allowing flexible working also fits into this – remember, all staff with 26 weeks or more service have the right to request flexible working, so you do need to consider any requests that come in. 

In short, presenteeism is here; it’s real; and it’s not good for your staff or your business!  We all need to tackle it so let’s crack on… but only if you’re well enough!


1. About the Bupa research: 2,000 UK employees were independently surveyed in September 2017 by Opinium Research -