Presenteeism at work

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Health Assured team

30 January 2020

Most workplaces will have an employee that always comes into work even when they’re ill.

While some employers will see this as a sign of a dedicated employee, others are aware of the harm it could do to a business.

A 2018 report from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that presenteeism at work has more than tripled since 2010.

If this is an issue you’re currently experiencing, contact the Health Assured team for advice on how to manage presenteeism and absenteeism at work. Speak to one of our health experts on 0844 892 2493.

Or you can read on for more information on presenteeism at work. As well as defining it, we’ll explore the causes and the cost to businesses.


What is presenteeism in the workplace?

It’s the term used to define an employee being present at work whilst they’re unwell.

While your staff are vulnerable to illness from time to time and might require some time off work to recover, presenteeism refers to instances when they come into work despite an ailment.

It’s the opposite of absenteeism at work-when your staff don’t come into work even though they’re fine.

Just like absenteeism, presenteeism can have serious long-term consequences for both the individual and your organisation.

According to the presenteeism statistics in the CIPD report, out of 1,000 respondents, 86% admitted to noticing it in their business over the last 12 months compared to 75% in 2016 and 26% in 2010.

Although there are many reasons why presenteeism is bad for business, we’ll focus on the three most common reasons.

  • It allows for a decline in productivity and efficiency as sick employees won’t be able to work to the best of their ability
  • It can have a knock-on effect on other staff members as ill employees can pass on their germs making the workplace even more unproductive
  • Employees working with dangerous or heavy machinery while unfit can present serious health & safety risks

It’s also important to consider the link between presenteeism and mental health. While health professionals recognise the importance of working for good health, they emphasise that this is only if it’s well managed. When it isn’t, presenteeism can lead to depression, anxiety, stress and other mental health conditions.

As well as saving money in the short and long-term, effective management of presenteeism in the workplace contributes to the development and engagement of a productive workforce.

The CIPD survey also found that 69% of respondents reported that ‘leaveism’, such as people using annual leave to work, is also a growing problem. But what is leaveism?

Not to be confused with presenteeism or absenteeism, this involves employees:

  • Using their allocated time off (including annual leave and flexible hours) to take time off when they’re ill
  • Taking work with them that can’t be completed during their normal working hours
  • Working while on leave or holiday to catch up with outstanding tasks


The cost of presenteeism

According to a research report by academics at Nottingham Business School (NBS), presenteeism is said to be costing businesses over £4000 in lost productivity per employee per year. The report estimates that average time employees spend at work while they’re ill is 2.5 weeks.

A report by the Centre for Mental Health also puts the cost of presenteeism to the UK economy ay £15.1 billion per annum while the cost of absenteeism was at £8.4 billion.

But how can you go about measuring presenteeism at work?

Because it isn’t clearly visible, measuring it isn’t as straightforward as it is for absenteeism. There are various limitations to measuring presenteeism at work. While one method may be suitable for one sector, it may not be for another.

However, the World Health Organisation (WHO) developed the Health and Work Performance Questionnaire (HWPQ) to help businesses measure the levels of presenteeism and absenteeism at work. With the information collected, you’ll be able to calculate the absolute and relative presenteeism scores.

  • Absolute: Is the measure of an employee’s actual performance in relation to their possible performance.
  • Relative: Is the ratio of an employee’s actual performance to the performance of most workers in the same role.


Causes of presenteeism

Before taking steps to reduce it in your workplace, you’ll first need to be able to identify and understand the underlying causes.

While they’ll vary depending on the business and job roles, the most common contributing factors can lead to instances of presenteeism at work include:

  • Unrealistic employer expectations and time pressures
  • No paid sick days
  • Loyalty or job insecurity
  • Harassment or discrimination for taking sick days
  • Larger workloads
  • Understaffing


Tips for preventing presenteeism in the workplace

Employees who come to work sick may be present in body but aren’t often present in mind.

While it might impact the business if a staff member is off sick for a few days, the potential negative implications if they come into work regardless and spread their illness with other employees are more severe.

With shrewd planning and communication, you can balance the needs of your business with the health and wellbeing of your staff.

If an employee feels as though their employer demonstrates a lack of concern for their health and wellbeing, then coming to work will feel more like a chore, thus reducing their level of job satisfaction. It’s important as an employer to take proactive steps to intervene and help tackle the issue before it escalates.

Presenteeism can lead to a disengagement of staff from work, which can then lead to them performing below par, thus not attaining the usual standards that their employers have come to expect of them.

You can take several approaches to address presenteeism at work. The first of which is an absence management policy. This document should set out your organisation’s approach and procedures for:

  • Reporting and recording absences
  • Providing evidence of illness (when required)
  • Returning to work after absence due to ill health e.g. return to work interview and phased return to work plan)
  • Sick pay entitlement
  • Scheduling medical appointments
  • Prolonged absences due to ill health

How you implement the policy is also important. For example, use the return-to-work interview to ensure your employee is fit and ready to start work again.

This is a good opportunity to discuss if you’ll have to arrange any ongoing support to ease the employee back into the working environment.

Other tips for preventing presenteeism at work include:

Presenteeism policy: If you recognise it as a problem within your organisation, then you can introduce a workplace presenteeism policy. The document should outline your stance on employees coming into work sick. This should help staff members understand under what conditions they should stay at home. For example, if their illness becomes a risk to the health and wellbeing of themselves, and their colleagues.

Encourage healthy living: Taking note of employee health and wellbeing may also involve introducing a healthier lifestyle in the workplace. This can range from encouraging employees to take the stairs instead of lifts, to more progressive activities, such as lunchtime or post-work fitness classes. As well as helping to boost staff morale and motivation, it’ll also encourage employees to take their health more seriously, which in turn can help decrease the level of sickness they experience.

Workplace environment: Ensuring that workplace common areas and facilities are kept clean is equally important. This may sound obvious, but if the office is not properly maintained, germs can spread quickly. Try educating your employees using posters and flyers, which will serve as reminders as to why personal and office hygiene is vital.

Lead by example: As an employer, it’s important for you to practice what you preach. If you don’t want your staff to come into work while their ill, then you shouldn’t either. Although it’s better to give yourself time to recover properly, consider keeping in touch via phone or email if there’re urgent issues that need to be addressed immediately. If your staff see you doing this, they’re likely to do the same.

Disciplinary action: For businesses where the protection of the public is critical (restaurants, hospitals, etc), you can consider implementing disciplinary action for those that don’t adhere to the company policy.


Sickness presenteeism can be a real cause for concern for employers, impacting how an organisation is run and its financial wellbeing. Therefore, it is important to implement a strategy that encourages a healthy workplace culture.

As a result, you will see the benefits of a more productive and efficient working environment, in addition to employees who are happy and more engaged in their roles.


Expert Advice

If you would like to find out more information on any of the topics mentioned in this article, please contact Health Assured on 0844 892 2493.

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