The problem with presenteeism

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Employers often worry about absenteeism but presenteeism could be an even bigger problem

We’re all familiar with the problem of absenteeism affecting productivity, but what about the risks posed by presenteeism – people turning up for work when unwell?

Recent research from the CIPD and Simplyhealth suggests wellbeing at work is at risk, with presenteeism tripling since 2010. Almost 86% of workers they interviewed said they had observed presenteeism in their workplaces during the last 12 months.

Presenteeism can cause significant problems for a business, including loss of productivity, increased likelihood of mistakes, worker exhaustion or even workplace epidemics. Those who work while sick take longer to recover and their lack of enthusiasm/continued illness can lower workplace morale.

It has also been shown that those who turn up to work while sick are at greater risk of psychological harm, leading to long term sickness absence. This is clearly not good news for businesses.

Employer’s legal obligations

Employers have a duty of care to their employees, which means they should take all reasonable steps to ensure their physical and mental health, safety and wellbeing. In addition employers should remember that workers with long-term illnesses may be classed as disabled under the Equality Act 2010 and reasonable adjustments (such as allowing extended time off work for treatment and recovery) may need to be made.

However, what should an employer do if it is the employee who insists on returning to work? Where an employee has been signed off by a GP there is no mechanism for them to be formally ‘signed back’ to work if they wish to return before their fit note expires. The safest approach is for the employer to advise the employee that they should not return until their fit note has expired. Particularly in cases of anxiety, depression or other mental health issues, the employer would be exposing themselves to risk by allowing an employee to return before the expiry of their fit note.

Where the illness is of a physical nature that affects movement only e.g. a broken leg, the employer may wish to take a pragmatic approach and allow the employee to work from home. In such circumstances the employer should consider carrying out a risk or occupational health assessment to ascertain their fitness for work.

What steps can employers take to curb presenteeism?

The following steps are recommended to ensure your employees do not work unless they are fully fit to do so:

  • Train managers to spot the signs and set the right example – employees who see their boss working when ill may feel obliged to do the same. Management should be encouraging sick employees to go home and educating them on the importance of being fit at work.
  • Use capability rather than disciplinary policies to address sickness issues – do not use disciplinary action inappropriately against employees who exceed their sick day allowance. This could result in staff returning to work when they are still sick. Instead employers should have comprehensive capability or sickness policies in place that focus on supporting employees to return to work and making reasonable adjustments to enable them to do so.
  • Offer paid sick leave. The weekly rate for statutory sick pay is currently £92.05 for up to 28 weeks where an employee has been off sick for four or more days in a row. Where employers do not enhance sickness pay, employees may feel forced to return to work for financial reasons. Employers may wish to provide enhanced contractual sick pay so that employees do not feel forced to attend work. However, employers should also be mindful that overly generous sick pay provisions may encourage perfectly fit workers to take sick leave.
  • Put in place a health and wellbeing strategy – encourage employees to remain healthy by providing workplace schemes such as cycle to work, free fruit and gym membership discounts and educate them to be aware of and take steps to protect their own mental health.

Rather than being thankful for the employee’s attendance in cases of presenteeism, employers should be aware of its detrimental impact and take proactive steps to ensure people take the time they need to recover fully from illness.

Tilly Harries is head of PwC HR Support

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