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The hidden cost of presenteeism


Posted on: Wednesday August 19, 2020

Presenteeism - where employees are at work but aren’t functioning at 100% because of health or other issues – is a widespread problem. Last year the CIPD surveyed more than a thousand HR professionals and found that 83% of respondents have observed people going to work when ill in their organisation.

Many employers are more focused on reducing absence rates. However, in the short-term, presenteeism could be costing your business dearly in lost productivity; and in the long-term, it’s storing up serious health problems for your employees.

It’s understandable that addressing presenteeism doesn’t get the attention it deserves. It’s obvious when someone doesn’t show up for work, but you often can’t tell when - or how much - illness is hindering someone’s performance.

A hidden epidemic

Remember that not every disability is visible. Employees may be suffering from conditions which are not obvious from the outside but have a severe impact on daily life and can be difficult to discuss in a work context. Mental health conditions are especially hard to identify, and fear of stigma or lack of understanding may prevent sufferers from seeking help.

But a large-scale study of UK workplaces in 2018 revealed that mental health problems are a significant driver of productivity loss, costing the UK as a whole the equivalent of £38bn.

So just because people aren’t comfortable talking about it, doesn’t mean it’s not affecting your business.

The effects of presenteeism

Employees who keep coming to work despite illness may feel that they don’t want to let the side down, or fear being perceived as work-shy by colleagues or managers. Some workers feel they simply can’t afford it, in jobs where taking a sick day means losing a day’s pay. 

But in reality, the effect on productivity may be more than three times as bad as taking the time off, but without the benefit of being able to rest and recover. Working whilst unwell affects both the quantity of work (people might work more slowly than usual, or have to repeat tasks) and the quality (they might make mistakes, which is only human nature, but more serious mistakes can lead to more serious consequences).

What’s more, by not getting the time or treatment they need, employees risk making their condition worse and being forced to take long-term absence in the future. Even if they do take a sick day, employees might feel pressured to come back too soon, leading to a relapse or spreading germs to other colleagues.

So, it’s in everyone’s interests to create a work environment where taking genuine sick leave isn’t regarded as a weakness.

The bottom line

Many employers are waking up to the fact that their employees’ health and wellbeing is an asset meriting investment. But talking the talk on wellbeing isn’t enough; the proof of the pudding is whether employees feel able to prioritise their health over work when they are unwell, by taking adequate time off to recover.

Looking for tips on how to address presenteeism at your organisation? Look out for our upcoming blog, ‘five ways to prevent presenteeism’.


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