Insurance · 16 May 2017

Presenteeism: Why UK employees are turning up to work unwell

Staff presenteeism
Staff presenteeism could be fuelled by the fear of mounting workloads and the inability to fully switch-off

UK employees are three times more likely to turn up to work ill than call in sick, according to a new study, with so-called “presenteeism” a growing danger for small employers.

The Working Lives report, by insurer Aviva, examined the attitudes of business owners and workers across Britain to taking time off when unwell. Some seven in ten employees said they had recently resisted taking a day off due to the fear of a mounting workload on their return.

The findings also showed workers were far more likely to work while unwell than pull a sickie. Just 23 per cent of employees admitted to taking a day off when well enough to work.

In March 2017, figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed Britain’s level of sickness absence at the lowest since records began in 1993. In response, Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, said a nation of “mucus troopers” had failed to take health seriously.

The latest study confirmed sick days in Britain continued to fall, but the new culture of presenteeism – working while sick – might be undermining high attendance levels. Ill employees at work could spread an illness to colleagues and take longer to recover.

Commenting on the rise of presenteeism in UK workplaces, Doug Wright, Aviva UK Health medical director, said unwell employees created a “false economy”, as performance levels were inevitably lower than at full-health.

“[Business owners] need to ensure they create a working culture whereby people do not feel pressurised into coming to work when they are unwell, safe in the knowledge their absence can be effectively managed,” Wright added.

The study also suggested employers had failed to emphasise the importance of healthy living within the workplace.

Just 13 per cent of founders had given extra attention to health and wellbeing in the past year, while almost half admitted to prioritising bottom-line results over the health of the workforce.

In a warning to business owners, Wright said presenteeism was fuelled by Britain’s “always-on” culture, which had begun to negatively affect productivity and overall company performance.

Wright advised employers to “take the lead on communicating proactively to employees that it’s important to take a step back when unwell and it can be in everyone’s interest”.

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Praseeda Nair is the editorial director of Business Advice, and its sister publication for growing businesses, Real Business. She's an impassioned advocate for women in leadership, and likes to profile business owners, advisors and experts in the field of entrepreneurship and management.

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