, Is Presenteeism the Real Threat to UK Productivity?

Is presenteeism the latest scourge of the modern workplace? There is little doubt that technology and instant connectivity have blurred the lines between work and life outside of it. It would appear that this change in work culture, along with a growing stigma around taking time off, is causing employees to feel they have no choice but to come into work when they are ill.

Research carried out by the Canada Life Insurance Group found that 9 out of 10 UK employees say they have gone into work when feeling ill. Nearly a quarter of those surveyed said they wouldn’t take a day off sick unless they were hospitalized or had no other choice.

Presenteeism isn’t a new phenomenon, but it is increasingly coming under the spotlight in scientific studies as researchers try to fathom the productivity puzzle that troubles the UK. Presenteeism is an issue that UK businesses need to address if they are to fix this.

The UK has had a dismal productivity record since the financial crisis a decade ago. Brexit uncertainty isn’t helping matters. Is presenteeism posing a further threat?

Here I’ll be looking briefly at the causes of the UK productivity puzzle and consider the impact of presenteeism. Importantly, is presenteeism a real threat to productivity and if so, what can employers do to address it?

Presenteeism: a definition

Health Insurer, Vitality, defines presenteeism as “being present at work but being limited in some aspects of job performance by a health problem and thus experiencing decreased productivity and below-normal work quality.” It is essentially when a sick employee comes into work and underperforms when they really should be at home recuperating.

The UK productivity puzzle

While productivity growth has slowed since the financial crisis in almost all developed economies, the UK has suffered most, with current productivity near historic lows.

Weak growth in the UK, according to an in-depth report by McKinsey on solving the UK’s productivity puzzle, has been blamed on relatively low capital investment (especially equipment and structures), low wage growth and an oversized financial sector which accounted for nearly 50 percent of the aggregate slowdown. In addition, the emphasis on financial services in the UK also pulled people from other industries, causing their decline, and the benefits of digitization have yet to be fully realized.

The productivity gap is also pronounced among Britain’s regions. Research by the University of Cambridge on how to solve the UK’s productivity problem points to the negative impact of regional disparity. All economic growth in the UK is centered on London, the South East, and a few other cities, but many regions outside of these areas have low or negative economic growth and are actually some of the poorest regions in Europe.

In a report by the Financial Times, Andy Haldane, the Bank of England chief economist, said, “The UK’s international productivity gap is, to a large degree, a long tail problem.” He refers to a ‘long tail’ of companies with poor output per hour worked.

In addition, Mckinsey’s research (mentioned above) points to the fact that the growth in loans and deposits in the financial services sector contracted sharply after the crisis, but because of the fixed nature of many of the inputs, hours worked barely changed.

On top of these wider economic issues is the increasingly recognized issue of presenteeism, and the closely related problem of stress and mental ill-health in the workplace, specifically employees feeling unable to speak to their employers about these problems. Business culture has a huge part to play in productivity. Many studies indicate that companies with strong and positive cultures are more profitable.

How does presenteeism threaten productivity?

A report by The Psychologist on The hidden costs of working when sick, highlights the cost of presenteeism to UK employers, with mental ill health alone, estimated to be costing more than £15 million per year. Research by the Nottingham Business School found the average UK employee spends almost two weeks every year working while ill, which they say costs firms more than £4,000 per person.

In an article published by the HR Director last year, Steve Thompson, MD of Forward Role Recruitment, argues that presenteesism is one of the biggest threats to the UK’s productivity and is a problem that many employers have chosen to ignore.

Research has shown a huge rise in the number of people going into work when ill and that people are significantly less productive when they are working while sick. Ill employees can, in fact, be more costly to employers than if they take time off sick, and even more so if germs are transmitted and cause other staff members to become ill.

Employees working when ill are less effective in their roles and this can also have an impact on the morale of the people around them trying to cover the workload. Working when ill can also extend recovery rates and may even pose a threat to long-term health. The pressure of working when ill can also lead to disengagement and further complicate productivity problems.

Why do employees come to work when they are ill?

There are many reasons people come into work when they are sick. The most common reasons are:

  • Heavy workload
  • Financial insecurity when absent (insufficient sick pay)
  • Fear over job security
  • Management pressure
  • Sickness stigma
  • A strong sense of duty and obligation
  • Short staffing
  • A lack of support
  • An always-on culture

Employers need to do more

Research by CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) and Simply Health report a link between an increase in stress, anxiety and depression and the tripling of presenteeism in UK organizations since 2010.

Rachel Suff, Senior Employment Relations Adviser at CIPD said, “Increasingly the threats to well-being in the modern workplace are psychological rather than physical, and yet too few organizations are discouraging unhealthy workplace practices and tackling stress, which is strongly linked to health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

“In order to encourage a healthy workplace, organizations need to look beyond sickness absence rates alone and develop a solid, evidence-based understanding of the underlying causes of work-related stress and unhealthy behavior like presenteeism.”

Presenteeism is currently one of the biggest threats to UK productivity. The HR review reports that 57 percent of employees say they would stay in their job longer if there was more effort put into looking after their wellbeing, and 58 percent believe their work would be of better quality if there were more wellbeing measures in place.

In this article, I’ve shown that presenteeism is a real issue and a threat to productivity. Employee wellbeing initiatives are the answer, and that includes more open conversations about stress and mental health at work, encouraging staff to take time off when sick, and doing more to spot the signs employees are suffering from stress, anxiety, and depression.

About the author: Mike James is an experienced business writer specializing in HR, tech, and cybersecurity. On the latter, he has contributed to many of the leading publications both online and in print – such as StaySafeOnline, GlobalSign, Tech London and more.

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