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Presenteeism – Can Employers Do More?

23rd February 2018

Flu, colds, coughs, sniffles, “Blue Monday” – this is the time of year when “presenteeism” abounds and it is clear employers could still be doing a lot more to manage when it is appropriate, and inappropriate, for unwell employees to be coming into work.

Employee health and wellbeing – presenteeism or recognising the value of sick days?

The third Monday in January (this year January 19) was so-called “Blue Monday”, arguably “the most depressing day of the year” because of the combination of a foul weather, the post-Christmas financial hangover, long, dark days and the prevalence of coughs, colds, sniffles and winter flu.

Whether or not this date in the calendar actually exists is a moot point of course. However, this time of year is certainly a good time for managers to focus on how they are managing attendance and especially presenteeism.

Presenteeism, or struggling into work when ill or unwell only to spread illness or infection around your colleagues and perform under-par, is well-recognised as a phenomenon. And we’ve probably all done it at some point in our working lives.

There are, of course, gradations of presenteeism. Struggling into work with a gastrointestinal infection or a genuine bout flu, as opposed to simply a heavy cold, is undoubtedly not sensible.

Conversely, while passing your heavy cold around your colleagues is unlikely to make you popular, in the scheme of things, it is also unlikely to have too serious an effect in the long term.

Present and correct, but underperforming

Nevertheless, there is a cost to presenteeism. Research from the 2017 Britain’s Healthiest Workplace survey, for example, has highlighted that employees lose, on average, the equivalent of 30.4 days of productive time each year as they take time off sick or, critically, underperform in the office as a result of ill-health.

There is an important mental health aspect to presenteeism as well. For example, the stress and anxiety that can result from being off and knowing you are just going to come back to a vast pile of catching up or worrying that your colleagues will be under the cosh as a result, or the anxiety of being at work but knowing you are struggling to cope because you’re ill.

The Centre for Mental Health, for one, has calculated that presenteeism from mental ill health alone costs the UK economy £15.1bn per annum, compared with “just” £8.4bn for absenteeism.

Furthermore, presenteeism may not even always be about physically struggling into the office. Research for mouth spray brand ColdZyme, for example, has argued that, more often than not, even when employees do call in sick, they find themselves answering emails or even taking phone calls from home.

Skills and tools to manage attendance

What this all serves to indicate is the importance for line managers to have the skills and confidence properly to manage day-to-day attendance.

This needs to include ensuring they know and understand the company policy (and where there is flexibility), that they can communicate effectively to employees when it is, and isn’t, appropriate to struggle in, and they can ensure that, when people are off, they are not being bombarded from the office.

One valuable resource here can be offering managers access to an EAP. An EAP, of course, is best known for providing confidential counselling to employees and managers alike, and this a very useful facet of it.

But employers can also refer their managers to their EAP to gain advice and guidance on  how to have conversations with staff who are ill or unwell and managing attendance effectively.

This can include things such as how to plan, direct and even open conversation, how to identify trigger points (especially ones related to stress, anxiety and mental health), and then what to do about it.

As Dr Lucy Wright, Chief Medical Officer at Optima Health makes the point: “You only have to be travelling into work on public transport during January and February, sheltering from a cacophony of coughing, sneezing and blowing, to recognise the existence, and risk of presenteeism.

“There is always an important balance to be struck between encouraging and needing your team to be at work when they should be, and emphasising that, no, they’re not needed today and will be much better off staying in bed and recovering properly.

“The key is ensuring that your line managers have the tools, training and confidence to make those calls and follow through. Resources such as EAPs can be valuable in helping them strike this balance, and therefore may help to ensure your people are not just healthier while at work, but more productive, too.”