Managing Presenteeism – How to Make People Stop Working

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.

If you think this article is useful and you would like more advice on dealing with this  – or any other people-related issue in your business – please join our mailing list, or contact us for further guidance.

Facing the Mental Health Demons in the Workplace

Approximately 1 in 4 of us will experience some kind of mental health problem each year.  Yet we are still reluctant to talk about it.  We find it easier to discuss a physical problem than to tell our employer about a mental health issue such as depression, stress or anxiety.  It was reported in the press last year that one in three Fit Notes  issued in the UK are related to mental health.  Even more significantly,  of those signed off for these reasons, one in five remain off sick for at least three months.

On that basis, this is a major concern in the workplace and employers need to manage this as part of the overall wellbeing of their workforce.

Cause for concern

The problems which poor mental health can cause in the workplace are wide and can be costly.  Clearly, the first concern is someone’s absence – but this is far from the only worrying factor.  There will be those who are afraid to take time off for some reason.  Either they don’t want to tell anyone of their health problems or they need the money. Maybe they feel under pressure to perform or they don’t want to “let their colleagues down”.  So they may come to work when they are not fit to be there, which brings its own problems.

Poor mental health impacts on their performance, their attitude, their interactions with colleagues and clients.  It also affects the quality of their work and their productivity.  This can lead to further actions such as disciplinary or performance discussions, lay-offs – all of which are likely to worsen the situation.   Then there is the impact on others around them.  Colleagues may feel they overloaded due to someone’s absence or poor performance.  Customers may be getting poor service and support.

Poor mental health costs employers between £33 billion and £42 billion a year, so it would be sensible for employers to consider prevention.

What can we do?

Any organisation can – and should – create a Mental Health plan and then follow it and communicate it to all employees.  Here are some suggestions to help you to create good mental health within the workplace and to combat mental health issues at work:

Promoting Good Mental Health

  • Create an open atmosphere where people feel they can talk about such issues. You can do this by making employees aware of what help is available and where they can access it. Facilitate open discussions amongst employees.
  • Ensure you offer enough breaks from work and make sure people take them. When we get engrossed in a piece of work, it is easy to skip lunch, or work late, but this can be counter-productive and lead to other problems.  Make sure people take regular breaks from work and have a change of scene.  Try and encourage a good work-life balance – and LEAD BY EXAMPLE.  If people see you working all hours and not taking breaks, they will follow your lead as they will think that is what you expect of them as well.
  • Try and give people interesting, varied work which they can excel at. This will increase their sense of worth and happiness at work.
  • Praising people when they do well, exciting them about challenges and opportunities, recognising them when they do well. All of these will help to prevent mental health problems from occurring in the first place. 

Combatting Mental Health Issues

  • If you manage people, or have line managers who support teams, then train the managers to recognise mental health problems and in how to manage such conversations.
  • It might also be worth training one or two employees as mental health mentors, so that people feel they can go to these people if they have any issues but can’t approach you or their manager.
  • The Mental Health Foundation provides a series of guides about dealing with mental health problems. You  can download these at no cost, or you could order some paper copies to keep in the workplace for anyone who needs them.
  • If someone does disclose that they have a mental health problem, it could be made worse by other things – money worries, fear of losing job, fear of taking time off, fear of talking about it. Investigate gently with the individual  – there might be something you can do to help with those concerns.
  • Offer access to a counselling service or at least a helpline.
  • Many Mental Health charities can provide support to you and your employees. Investigate the options which work for you and your company and provide details to your employees.  Provide a list of those charities to any employee who discloses they have a mental health issue.  There is a huge amount of help available for those who need it.

If you think this article is useful and you would like more advice on dealing with this  -or any other people-related issue in your business – please join our mailing list, or contact us for further guidance.

 

 

Quick Wins To Manage “The Odd Day Off Sick”

Imagine you have a group of employees who are grumbling amongst themselves about their colleague who is off sick – again!  Or at least, they think she is sick as she didn’t turn up to work this morning .  All they can see is that nobody appears to be doing anything about her repeated absences and she “gets away with it” and they have to carry the extra work while she is off.  They are spending more time at the water cooler, moaning about their colleague than they are spending on their own jobs.

Sometimes absence may be genuine sickness, sometimes you may have doubts.  So how can you tell whether or not it is genuine and what can you do about it?

The quick answer is that you cannot tell the difference, particularly if there is a mental health issue, which is not always obvious to anybody other than the sufferer.   The best advice is to treat all sickness as genuine and assume that there is a real health issue (even if you are convinced that the person is “trying it on”).

So what should you do?

  • Firstly, somebody’s absence is their own business and your business. It is not something to be shared by you with their colleagues. So you should not tell their colleagues why an individual is absent or what action you are taking.  However, you might find it useful to tell the team that their colleague will not be in work today and that you know about it and are speaking to the individual about it. That gives the message that a) the absence has been noticed and b) it is being dealt with.
  • Always have an informal interview with the absent employee when they return to work. This can give you more information (whether there is a problem at home; whether they are unhappy at work for some reason, whether there is a physical problem – like an allergy to something  in their workplace).  Or you might find out that they were not sick at all, but the absence was for another reason.  In any case, you can guide the employee on what they should do (remind them about calling in sick by a certain time, or remind them about their options if they need emergency time off).  You may find out that the employee has a recurring health problem and you can then decide what, if any, adjustments you may need to make to their working patterns, hours or the actual work they do.  This informal interview gives a strong message to the individual that their absence has been noticed.  If it is genuine sickness, they may be glad of your interest in their welfare.  If it is not genuine sickness, then the fact it has been noticed may prevent them in future from taking time off again without good cause.
  • Keep an attendance record for every employee. Record any absence with the reason for that absence.  This will help you to analyse any patterns (it is always a Monday, or it is always when a specific piece of work is due or it is always when a particular person is working with the absent individual).  In itself, this can highlight areas you need to manage (staff who don’t get on with each other, or a misfit of skills and experience or lack of training).
  • Have a clear and published policy on absence, so that everyone in the workplace can understand the rules and guidance and what are the consequences if they fail to adhere.

If you have found  this article useful  and would like more advice on dealing with this or any other people-related issue in your business, please consider joining our mailing list, or contact us for further guidance.