Tackling the Presenteeism epidemic

Tough sick leave policies, a lack of flexibility and the failure to focus on wellbeing will leave organisations with a serious productivity problem, says Epson senior HR manager Ethaniel Kelly-Wilson.

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The US film director Woody Allen once famously said: “Eighty per cent of success is showing up.” Today, employees across Europe are taking this quite literally, turning up to work when they are sick or otherwise incapable of focusing. In fact, a recent study by Eurofound, a living and working conditions foundation, revealed that 39% of the European employees questioned said they had gone into work while sick.

Such figures point to the widespread epidemic of ‘presenteeism’: employees going into work when sick or otherwise incapable of being productive. Presenteeism occurs when employees feel the need to be physically present in the workplace and put in as much ‘face time’ as possible. A study by the office refurbishing company Overbury surveyed 1,000 employees from eight different sectors and found presenteeism is the result of a combination of factors, including expectations from management, peer pressure and concern over how we are perceived by our colleagues and bosses. The last factor in particular has a significant impact on presenteeism: four in five (80%) respondents of the survey claimed that those who spend more hours in the office are thought by bosses to be working harder; while 66% believed being seen to work late increases an employee’s chance of promotion.

Businesses are often concerned with absenteeism and habitual absence from work, but less with presenteeism. Employers might not see the harm in having a workforce that is always present. However, hours worked and productivity do not always correlate; a growing body of research supports the view that presenteeism can negatively impact employee productivity. Legal & General, for example, has found that the loss of productivity caused by “presenteeism” was 12% or three times higher than the loss of productivity by absenteeism (4%).

Fatigued or physically sick employees are also less alert and not capable of making clear-headed decisions, which can increase the risk of occupational injuries. Furthermore, having sick and infectious employees in the office can result in a workplace epidemic with much wider consequences in terms of costs, poor employee morale and productivity loss.

So what can businesses do to counter presenteeism in the workplace?

Introduce flexible work arrangements

According to a 2011 survey by O2, more than a quarter (27%) of respondents believes their performance is primarily measured by the time they spend in the workplace rather than the results that they deliver. Furthermore, they said that their organisation’s appraisal system doesn’t support or account for flexible working. The same amount of people also stated that they feel their line manager prevents them from working flexibly.

Employers should realise that promoting flexible working and the ability to work from home will signal to employees that being present in the workplace as much as possible is not what will determine their performance appraisal. This in turn will reduce the peer pressure to be in the workplace and the judgement from colleagues when an employee leaves the office to pick up his/her children or chooses to work from home when feeling under the weather.

However, according to a recent Epson study, a significant number of businesses are still not set up to facilitate remote (37%) or flexible working (34%). Thankfully, there are technologies out there that can enable this. Moving to cloud-based IT infrastructures is one solution that can help remove the restriction of only being able to work from the office. Cloud computing lets businesses and users store and access programs and data via the Internet, allowing employees to access all documents and applications they need to do their jobs remotely. Cloud-compatible printers, scanners and projectors make it possible for employees off-site to view and amend shared documents in real time.

Rethink sick leave policies

Businesses should re-think their sick leave policies and the amount of paid sick days employees have at their disposal. Recent research by the Economist Intelligence Unit showed that there are big differences in sickness benefits across Europe, with sick leave cover being split differently between the employee, the employer and the State. In Germany, Denmark, Austria and Belgium, for example, employers finance a great part of sick leave cover, but in the UK employees may have to rely on the state and their personal savings. This can help explain why presenteeism is so common in certain countries. Sick employees who have to support a family or have financial issues are less likely to call in sick when it means they won’t get a full day’s pay. However, considering Legal & General’s finding that on a yearly basis presenteeism costs a company about three times more than absenteeism, employers should think twice about tough sick leave policies designed to combat absenteeism.

Promote Health and Wellbeing

Lastly, employers must take some responsibility for promoting employee health and wellbeing. Training and awareness sessions are one way to help employees take their health more seriously and to learn what they can do to improve it. According to the UK Centre for Mental Health, this will create a more open culture when it comes to disclosing health conditions and taking sick leave. Experts also suggest that companies should encourage employees to take all of their annual leave and provide fitness facilities or subsidised fitness memberships. Time off work is essential for an employee’s mental and physical health.

Developments in wearable technology are supporting this cause. By providing employees with wearable activity monitors they can be prompted to do the exercise we all so often put off. These monitors have lots of features, allowing users to set themselves targets and stay motivated in pursuit of a healthier lifestyle. Exercise will not only improve their physical health but also their mental health as exercise is a natural form of stress relief.

Organisations should take the issue of presenteeism seriously and recognise that it can lead to a significant loss in employee output. With today’s technologies enabling flexible and remote working arrangements, there is no reason why an employee should feel pressured to put in so much face time. A good corporate wellness programme can also go a long way in reducing presenteeism and saving costs in the long run.

Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tompagenet/

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  1. Presenteeism damaging productivity | Flexible working blog from NearDesk – Commute less; live more

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