Seven in 10 UK employers witness 'presenteeism' in the workplace

Young sick woman sitting in the office desk with laptop and wiping nose with paper napkin
Presenteeism is where an employee comes into work when they are unwell, thereby having a negative impact on business productivity, quality of work, and quantity of output. (Getty)

Seven in 10 (71%) UK business leaders witnessed “presenteeism” in the workplace in the last year, new research has found.

Presenteeism is where an employee comes into work when they are unwell, thereby having a negative impact on business productivity, quality of work, and quantity of output.

Without rest and leave, workers may take longer to recover from illness, resulting in longer periods of ill health. Sick employees also pose a health risk to others as they could be contagious and spread their illness to colleagues.

The cost to businesses in wasted time and lowered productivity can be steep as employers are struggling to shoulder the “invisible burden” of presenteeism in the workplace, according to the study of 600 UK business leaders by recruitment specialist Robert Half.

Over half (56%) of those surveyed saw a rise in people coming into work when ill during times of stress and during periods of change (54%), suggesting a rise in mental-health related presenteeism.

Read more: Over 8 million workers call in sick due to 'painful jobs'

Time of year is also a factor as seven in 10 (71%) employers noticed a rise in presenteeism during the winter months — a period when colds, flus, and other illnesses are more rife.

Just over three in five (62%) employers say that presenteeism increases during the school holidays, perhaps due to stress caused by childcare worries.

The problem is most common in London, with over four in five (83%) workers in the capital observing presenteeism in their workplace, compared with 62% of employees in the North.

There are several reasons why someone is consistently present at work when unwell including pressure from colleagues or other staff members to come to work and fear of disciplinary action from management if sick leave is taken.

“Presenteeism is often linked to workplace culture and how employees believe they would be perceived if they were to take a day off for illness,” said Matt Weston, managing director of Robert Half UK.

“There are steps that employers can take to shift these perceptions, most notably by implementing employee wellbeing initiatives. Flexible working, offering complementary healthcare or simply encouraging team members to leave the office on time will have a positive impact. Education is also critical. Ensuring every employee knows the company leave policy and debunking any perceptions that this leave shouldn’t be taken is a good place to start.”

Read more: Poor mental health costs UK employers £45bn a year

Some UK companies are trying to tackle the issue and boost employee wellbeing. The most common initiative on offer is flexible working (45%). One third (32%) of employers say they are actively monitoring workloads, 31% are offering remote working or the option to work from home during the week, while 27% are increasing holiday allowances.

Only a fifth (20%) are offering mental health support.

“Presenteeism is the invisible burden on business productivity. It’s not always apparent when someone is feeling unwell or how much an illness or medical condition is impacting their work, especially if they look fine. Productivity loss resulting from genuine health problems is a serious issue for employers and employees alike, but it is often overlooked,” Weston said.

“Employee well-being is central to job satisfaction and engagement at work, which in turn impacts a company’s bottom line. Whether direct or indirect, it’s important that employers and employees acknowledge the risks of presenteeism collectively to create an engaged and happy workplace culture.”