People who have worked with me for any length of time know that I have a bee in my bonnet about discouraging long working hours and encouraging the use of breaks. I think my colleagues all got sick of me nagging them to leave on time or to go out and get some fresh air at lunchtime.
But I am vindicated by recent research from the CIPD. Their report shows 86 per cent of respondents to their survey have seen a rise in “presenteeism” over the past 12 months. Over two-thirds reported “leaveism” (people working when they should be on annual leave).
What is presenteeism?
According to Google, presenteeism is “the practice of being present at one’s place of work for more hours than required, especially as a manifestation of insecurity about one’s job ”. Most commentators link this to being at work even though sick, and some refer to “workplace presence”. I believe that it also covers people who work through their breaks, who work long hours, or who work during annual leave periods or public holidays (“leaveism”).
Why do people work when they are sick, or tired?
You may say that you do not ask or expect people to work long hours or come into work when they are sick. If they choose to do that, then that is their own decision.
Indeed, there may be little pressure from managers for people to exhibit presenteeism. Many people have a strong sense of loyalty to their co-workers and do not want to cause others to have more work to do because they are sick. They “don’t feel too bad” so think they can do a day’s work. Others may feel a loyalty to the organisation they work for and presenteeism is a misguided attempt to “be professional” or to support the organisation or colleagues.
Of course, sometimes managers do put stong pressure on people to perform and get the job done. Whilst I am sure that every manager would say they do not want people to work when they are sick, they may not understand how implied messages can be misread.
In some industries or areas where there is little other employment opportunity, people are frightened that they may lose their job if they take too much time off sick. Or they have personal money worries or they fear downsizing or job losses. In a smaller team, people might be afraid that the work will pile up while they are off sick. So they come in before they have recovered, or they work at weekends, to avoid the pressure of a heavy workload. This is common where people feel they have high workloads, deadlines and believe they have little support.
Then, of course, there are people who are addicted to work – “workaholics”.
But surely it is good for an employer to get unpaid work from employees?
Just because someone is in the workplace, they may not be adding a valued contribution to the organisation. If they are ill or tired, then their productivity will be low. This might even be more costly for the employer than their absence would be. The quality of their performance will reduce and this could lead to poor judgements which cost time and money to fix. Not to mention the detrimental effect on their colleagues or poor client relations.
Another issue is poor health – for both the individual employee and their colleagues. If someone continues to work when ill or exhausted, then they are likely to fall victim to other sickness as their immunity levels will reduce. They will probably pass their bugs on to colleagues and cause a rash of absence as others have to take time out to recover from a stomach upset or cold which has been passed on to them. It will take the individual longer to recover from sickness as they have not taken enough rest. This will make them unpopular with their colleagues who become sick or who have to pick up the workload. This has the potential to damage general staff morale.
How does this affect the Company?
The Business will suffer reduced quality and volume of work. In itself this may lead to people needing to work longer hours (a vicious circle) to compensate for time off. This can lead to reduced staff morale, poor employee engagement and yet further loss of productivity.
There is increasing evidence that the amount of time lost to absenteeism is dwarfed when compared to the productivity lost through presenteeism. A study by The Work Foundation has found that the cost of presenteeism in the workplace could account for one-and-a-half times the cost of sick leave. A separate study in the USA showed that the cost of health-related presenteeism could be as much as ten times that of absence. And that doesn’t include the people who stay at their desk surfing the internet or checking social media, waiting for their boss to leave.
What can an employer do to prevent presenteeism?
The CIPD report showed that only a quarter of firms surveyed are taking steps to discourage unhealthy working patterns or tackle stress, which is strongly linked to conditions like anxiety and depression. A previous JMA HR article has touched on mental health and could help you to tackle depression and anxiety in the workplace.
People managers need to be trained to recognise presenteeism and to discourage it. For example, technology is widely seen as positive in the workplace, but many people find it difficult to “switch off” outside working hours. I have known many people who deal with emails late into the night, or even take laptops on holiday so they can keep up with work. This negates the benefit of having an overnight break or a holiday. You could consider banning the use of email outside of working hours or after a set time.
Many of us work in high-pressure cultures or deal with heavy workloads. This can push unwell employees into the office. It can also lead to people using annual leave and weekends to catch up with a backlog of tasks. This requires some serious management and job design. You may well be concerned about the additional cost of an extra salary if you take on more staff. How much more does it cost for your current employees to manage the tide by working when they are unfit, only to drown when they are engulfed? You need to make it a priority to give manageable workloads.
Lead by example
Simple steps to take include sending unwell employees home. You could also encourage – or even enforce – breaks and reasonable working hours. Make it clear that your Company expects sick employees to stay home and recover. How about sending a “hometime” reminder from the CEO to come up on every computer screen at the end of the working day? The workaholics among your staff may resist this, but they will thank you in the long run. You will definitely see the benefit yourself.
Deadlines are a factor of the modern workplace and there is probably nothing you can do about that. There may be occasions when you need people to work late or out of hours. Keep these to a minimum, rather than an expected pattern. You will find that people are willing to help you to meet an important deadline. Then thank them!
A really basic step for business owners, CEOs and managers to take is to be the role model of the behaviour you require. This is simple, but surprisingly rare. Your staff will look to you for a lead and they will follow your pattern. If you work long hours, don’t take breaks and work when you are sick or on holiday, then you cannot expect them to behave any differently. You are the key to changing the culture. You are not made of steel, either. All of the disadvantages that presenteeism brings for your workplace also apply to you.