The “new” problem of Presenteeism and how business can stop it happening.

In October last year the CIPD reported that a third of the 600 employers it surveyed reported that they had seen an increase in the number of staff coming to work while they are ill but more than half of those organisations had done nothing to discourage this kind of behaviour in their employees.This is the fifth consecutive year that there has been a rise in the number of people attending work while sick. The research also showed that presenteeism is more likely to occur where long working hours are the norm and operational demands take precedence over employee well-being.

In addition, it also showed that those employers who reported an increase in presenteeism, are nearly twice as likely to report an increase in stress related absence.

So what is presenteeism? Firstly, it can mean putting in excessive hours as a perverse expression of commitment or a way of coping with nagging job insecurity. This was observed by Cary Cooper at Manchester University during the downsizing and restructuring in the 1990’s (so is it that new?). Secondly, as the CIPD report identifies, presenteeism is a way of describing employees who are coming to work despite being sick or injured.

So why should organisations be bothered, people turning up for work even if they are not 100% is a good thing isn’t it? Attendance figures will be great. More research by the Health Coalition of Tampa Florida has shown that productivity loss from presenteeism is 7.5 times greater than that of absenteeism. I know of many organisations who put value on those who come in early, stay late, work weekends etc. If they do that they must working hard musn’t they? Work life conflict can also encourage people to come to work while unwell which can cause stress, burnout and depression. If research is saying that this is extremely unproductive so what can organisations do about it? Given there are a number of different types and causes, a one size fits all solution will not work, so what can be done?

  1. Diagnose the problem. Include a question or number of questions in a staff survey on presenteeism. Find out how much of a problem it is (or isn’t).
  2. Develop an employee well-being strategy that is a key part of the overall business strategy so that its importance to the progress of the business is key. Employee well-being should take precedence over operational demands as well looked after employees are more productive and therefore will fulfil the demands of the business better.
  3. Review policies on flexible working, listen to what employees are saying and support them wherever possible
  4. Look at providing health programmes like, gym membership, health screening, occupational health support, employee assistance programs, access to flu jabs and many others depending on the resources available. Some of these do not have to break the bank balance to be effective and well received.
  5. Increase face time between staff and their managers. For this to be effective additional training may need to be given to give managers the necessary skills and confidence to manage staff more effectively.
  6. The workplace environment can be improved to increase the amount of social interaction with employees. A professional services businesses in Leeds recently moved offices and at the new offices created a large communal space where people could eat lunch, chat, socialise etc. This was a move away from previously where people ate in their offices, often alone not taking a break away from work or the computer screen. This encouraged Partners, Fee Earners, Admin Staff even HR folk to mix and interact.

In the end, it all comes down to good people management, easier said than done I admit, to bring presenteeism out into the open and address it effectively, organisational leaders must realise working people harder is not a sustainable recipe for higher productivity. A far better approach is to provide healthy working conditions that support people to work smarter, not harder.

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