Tackling presenteeism

Hira Ali
Tuesday, January 5, 2021

A culture that encourages stressed staff to turn up for work while ignoring their health can be more costly to employers than absenteeism. Leaders must learn the skills to safeguard workplace wellbeing.

Hira Ali, founder, Advancing Your Potential
Hira Ali, founder, Advancing Your Potential

Presenteeism – showing up to work despite being unwell – is on the rise. A survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found 83 per cent of respondents had observed presenteeism in their organisation while a quarter believed the problem was worse than the previous year. UK employees take half the amount of sick days than in 1993 but this is not necessarily down to low sickness rates. Instead it points to the fact people are increasingly sidelining both mental and physical health problems in favour of being “seen” at work.

1. Understand the problem. Presenteeism is a widespread, unaddressed issue. A workplace culture where employees feel stressed and obliged to attend is often more costly than absenteeism. By encouraging sick employees to show up, you increase the risk of them infecting the rest of the team. As the Covid-19 pandemic has shown, contagious illnesses spread quickly in enclosed spaces and could have serious consequences for vulnerable staff members. In the absence of downtime to rest and recuperate, an employee’s recovery is stretched out and output is affected.

2. Know the signs. Presenteeism can be hard to detect. While a low absence rate may be a sign of a healthy workforce, it may also indicate there is a problem so it is important to scrutinise the figures. Managers also need to look out for visibly tired or unwell employees. Signs of presenteeism can include changes in an employee’s work patterns or behaviour such as irritability or moodiness. Staff may seem distracted or in low spirits, participate and engage less than usual, show signs of a loss of appetite or sense of humour. They may be late for work or careless about tasks they normally do well. However, some people may show no signs at all.

3. Involve team leaders. Employees must feel comfortable raising concerns with managers who in turn must make an effort to get to know team members personally and encourage regular conversations around wellbeing. Informal meetings can help leaders gauge the mood and energy level of their team. Do people seem eager or are they showing signs of lethargy and apathy? As a leader, you should set an example by taking sick days yourself and encouraging staff to go home and rest if they seem ill. Encourage people to look out for their colleaguesand spot signs of someone being ill or struggling at work. Managers should be trained to recognise symptoms of stress or ill health and made aware of the causes of presenteeism. They should also be equipped with the necessary “soft skills” to communicate effectively and empathetically.

4. Motivate your workforce. Ensure your team members see themselves as part of the bigger picture and know what is expected of them. When I worked for a pharmaceutical company a few years back, our company’s vision was “to be among the top three pharmaceutical companies in the country”. This was a driving force for many of us who were keen to be associated with this achievement. Organising celebrations, providing food and offering time out – especially after a particularly hectic or stressful period – can help your staff unwind and recharge their batteries. Vouchers for restaurants, the cinema or spa treatments can be used as incentives. Ask your team how you can help make their lives outside work better. At least once a year, provide an opportunity for families of your employees to interact with managers.

5. Value staff health and wellbeing. One of the best ways of improving workplace productivity is to encourage a culture that values and prioritises the health and wellbeing of employees. Check if your workplace culture is unintentionally encouraging presenteeism. If employees are penalised for taking time off, leave is difficult to get, employees are being contacted regularly even when they are off and a late working culture is championed then it is time for a shift. One way to discourage presenteeism is to make leave non-transferable and non-cashable.

Anonymous surveys and feedback can help develop a solid, evidence-based understanding of the underlying causes of work-related stress. Meanwhile a transparent sickness and absence policy that all members of staff are aware of can help reduce the likelihood of presenteeism. A robust workplace wellbeing programme that offers a variety of services including referrals to further support, financial and health advice and resources covering emotional, financial and physical wellbeing can really boost productivity. Encourage flexible working and working from home to reduce stress and support health. To effectively counter presenteeism, it needs to be on your radar. An employee physically working in an office doesn’t guarantee improved results or productivity but an employee who is in a good place mentally and physically certainly does.

  • Hira Ali is an executive coach focused on women’s and ethnic leadership development. Her book Her Way to the Top: A Guide to Smashing the Glass Ceiling was published in 2019 by Panoma Press www.advancingyourpotential.com

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