Presenteeism. Through COVID & beyond

Employee absence, while it can be completely natural and acceptable for a variety of reasons, is costly for business. However, the opposite, in the form of presenteeism, can be equally damaging and it’s unfortunately on the rise.

What is presenteeism and what does it cost?

For the majority of employees, both short-term and long-term absences are a rare occurrence. For some, however, it is quite the opposite. This is why the majority of employers have clear absence management policies in place to deal with increasing or concerning levels of absence, with adjustments in place for dealing with disabled employees where necessary.

But what about the reverse situation? Physically showing up to work when sick, injured, against medical advice, overly tired, not operating at normal levels of productivity, not giving the job its full attention, and being less engaged or motivated while at work are all forms of presenteeism and research shows that presenteeism, in whatever form, is a common and often unaddressed issue. Studies by Vitality found presenteeism to be the most significant driver of productivity loss in organisations resulting in a loss, on average, of 36 working days per year per employee. When translated into monetary terms, the combined economic impact of both sickness absence and presenteeism totals £77.5 billion per annum.

As if that wasn’t enough, the Chartered Institute for Personal Development (CIPD), found that in 2018 a study of 1,000 people revealed 86% of respondents had observed presenteeism in their workplace within the past 12 months. An increase from 72% in 2016 and a significant increase from 26% in 2010.

Impact of the current pandemic

The recent lockdown has certainly exacerbated the situation.

On the matter of introductions, COVID-19 obviously needs none. In such a short space of time the pandemic has changed the way in which we work, most likely forever. It has demanded the immediate modernisation of working habits and has provoked the collaboration of businesses across the country.

Employers have been tasked with ensuring the health and safety of their workforce as well as enabling their workforce to work from home in line with the government’s current guidance to “work from home where you can”. But working from home does not stop presenteeism, particularly in a situation where employees feel unsure about the future and their long-term job security. Indeed, the ability to switch off from work can be a challenge and many employees are working longer hours at home than they would do in the office. There are a variety of reasons for this including:

  • employees feeling that they need to be seen or recognised as being available at all times, believing that this shows their value, loyalty or commitment;managers or leaders feeling that they need to be setting an example to colleagues or setting high expectations among staff by being available at all times;
  • workaholics finding it difficult to delegate, trust others or work as part of a team particularly where there is less visibility of others and what they are doing making supervision more complex;
  • those suffering from issues in their personal lives believing that escaping to work and being in work will provide necessary distraction; and
  • concerns regarding job security and finances, particularly in light of the impact COVID-19 is having on many businesses. Research confirms an increase in presenteeism as employees seek to demonstrate their worth and commitment to their employer, hoping not to be placed on furlough. For those that remained in work throughout this period, there will be clear attempts by employees to similarly show that they are indispensable so as to avoid reduced working hours (and associated pay cuts), or even redundancy.

Unfortunately, in some businesses attitudes and behaviours have gone in favour of presenteeism for some time. But this must stop – particularly in light of the changing workplace that we’ve already adapted to and will need to adapt to further going forwards.

What should employers be doing?

Employers that fail to acknowledge or deal with presenteeism aren’t just at risk of a reduction in productivity. Without action now, the health and wellbeing of the workforce will be adversely affected through mental exhaustion and physical drain. Employers also run the risk of high levels of turnover and inability to attract talent which will be key to business success as we emerge from lockdown. The ability to demonstrate attitudes against presenteeism, coupled with an approach to promote rest and recuperation outside of normal working hours is therefore key. Without it, and without the ability for employees to switch off without fear of repercussion, will only lead to worsened mental health and wellbeing, which in time will, unsurprisingly, turn presenteeism into absence.

Sir Richard Branson famously remarked that “clients do not come first, employees come first and if you take care of your employees then they will take care of the clients”. Whether you agree with that statement or not, the principle that a happy and healthy workforce is something to strive for has to be universally accepted for successful business recovery now and in the future, especially taking into account the concerns of returning to the workplace as and when it’s safe to do so.

To that end, employers should consider among other things:

  • properly and diligently planning for a safe and secure return to work, taking into account not only government guidance on social distancing, but with clear thought to the mental health and wellbeing of the workforce;
  • raise awareness of presenteeism (and absenteeism) amongst the workforce, indicating and highlighting the warning signs and signposting support mechanisms;
  • erase the old school mentality that working all hours is the only way to succeed;
  • having policies and procedures in place to enforce employees to not turn up for work when they are sick or injured or simply show signs of illness, whether COVID-19 related or otherwise;
  • erase, or at least modify, financial rewards or other promotion opportunities connected to attendance metrics;
  • introduce or update wellbeing policies and strategies and/or introduce wellbeing champions in departments and teams;
  • review existing policies on absence and sickness reporting to ensure that accurate attendance figures are generated;
  • assess annual leave levels among employees to ensure that full allowances are being taken to allow employees time to properly rest and recuperate;
  • introduce policies that cap working hours, discourage working long hours, or allow for overtime opportunities; and
  • review contracts of employment relating to working hours, place of work, ability to work form home, all of which may necessitate a change of working pattern away from the typical Monday to Friday, nine to five working week. Other flexible options are available, including part-time working, condensed or annualised hours working arrangements, or term-time only working.

Overall, it remains particularly important during these times to have a holistic understanding of employees’ physical mental health, both in and out of the workplace.


This information is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. Please contact us for specific advice on your circumstances. © Shoosmiths LLP 2024.



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