Presenteeism in the aftermath of the pandemic

HR Resources

Presenteeism in the aftermath of the pandemic

September 3, 2021

Despite a rise in long-term flexible working, incidents of presenteeism – where employees continue to work when they are unwell – have risen in the pandemic, with workers feeling the pressures to be ‘always on and available’.

In fact, more than three quarters (77 per cent) of employers have observed presenteeism in employees who are working from home in the last year, according to the latest CIPD/Simplyhealth Health and Wellbeing at Work survey report.

The survey also found ‘leaveism’ – working outside of contracted hours or using annual leave to work or when ill – is an issue, with seven in ten (70 per cent) employers observing this unhealthy behaviour over the same period.

Employees’ desire to demonstrate their value, loyalty, commitment or indispensability in times of limited visibility and a heightened concern around job security has contributed to this acceleration.

While more organisations are taking steps to address these issues, more than two-fifths experiencing presenteeism (43 per cent) and leaveism (47 per cent) aren’t taking any action.

Unfortunately, some businesses have had a propensity to turn a blind eye to or even promote presenteeism but with employee burnout, lost productivity and high staff turnover just some of the consequences, the stakes are high.

Presenteeism costs UK employers up to £29bn a year, according to a pre-pandemic report by Deloitte and Mind.  In fact, presenteeism relating to mental health is having more of a detrimental impact than absences.

Here, we outline the steps employers can take to tackle incidents of presenteeism and leavism, from setting clear communications boundaries and reviewing workload management to line manager training and stress management support.

  1. Review policies that discourage sickness absence

 Although many companies have policies to manage absenteeism, presenteeism is rarely afforded the same consideration.

The issue could lie in unclear or aggressive policies and structures used to tackle sickness absence or in ineffective communication – or both.  This leads to a disconnection with employees that causes them to believe they are not able to take adequate sick leave.

According to the ADP Research Institute’s People at Work 2021 report, more than six in 10 (62 per cent) respondents say that their employer is monitoring time-keeping and attendance more closely than ever.

This ‘spotlight effect’ felt by employees in the pandemic could further prevent them from taking the appropriate time off when ill or from sticking to their contractual hours.

Procedures should be reviewed and revised, if required, to promote trust, encouraging employees to take time off when necessary, without them fearing that it might negatively impact their job security.

Corporate policies should be supportive and properly communicated and understood by all managers and employees.

Managers also play a role in the promotion of a healthy, balanced approach to working life.  By practising structured working days, encouraging routine breaks, and adopting and abiding by out-of-hours email policies, managers can be the guiding example to employees.

  1. Strike the right balance

Businesses are faced with a fine balancing act between managing staff back to work as quickly and efficiently as possible and ensuring they do not work through health conditions.

This is where a proactive approach can reap rewards. Case management led by occupational health practitioners can identify early interventions to prevent conditions becoming more serious, through appropriate treatment and workplace adjustments.

This, of course, is more difficult in times of reduced visibility, where the opportunities for intervention are more limited.

According to the People at Work 2021 report, 22 per cent of European employees said that staying healthy was their biggest challenge at work since COVID-19 began.

For many people, juggling their various personal needs while meeting their work requirements has been tricky and a sustained, heightened level of stress and emotional strain will eventually take its toll.

Minor illnesses, such as colds or stomach bugs, can mask more serious health issues, such as stress, so it is important that symptoms are not dismissed as innocuous.

HR professionals and managers should be provided guidance to help them identify the early signs of illness for all workers – remote and office-based – and make informed judgements about when referrals are required.

This can be facilitated through measures such as regular health questionnaires for all staff to one-to-one ‘catch-up’ video calls with line managers.

  1. Implement appropriate benefits schemes

The business cost of presenteeism is comparable to that caused by sickness absence. There is potential for employees to become unproductive or disengaged because they feel they are being overworked or forced to struggle on through illness.

The pandemic has certainly exacerbated this issue.  According to the People at Work 2021 report, fears of job insecurity was an issue for three quarters of European respondents (73 per cent) and prompted them to do things differently in their role – most commonly taking on extra tasks or assuming a heavier workload, or by working longer hours.

In fact, free working time increased significantly, with UK employees putting in the most hours of their European counterparts, after Swiss employees, with 7.8 hours of unpaid overtime a week.

It is important to listen to staff in order to identify health trends and offer the appropriate benefits and wellbeing initiatives.

Mental health is evidently an area that needs increased focus, considering the events of the past year and the stressors that have resulted, so finding ways to reduce stress and anxiety, avoid burnout and create a sense of fairness will be key to maintaining a mentally resilient workforce.

Unfortunately, less than half of employees (47 per cent) said their employer was supporting their mental health, so there is clearly room for improvement.

Health screenings, employee feedback, and claims data can work together to build a picture of the needs of the unique employee population and allow employers to redirect their resources and reshape their offering so that their benefits strategy is fit-for-purpose, robust and truly valuable.

  1. Accommodate and promote flexible working

Flexible working can help an employee who has been off for a long period of time reintegrate back into the workforce and lessen the risk of them becoming ill again from being overworked and overwhelmed.

It can also help employees achieve a more harmonious work-life balance, boosting productivity levels and staving off incidences of employee burnout.

Thanks to advancements in technology, opportunities for flexible working are greater than ever and employees have a legal right for any request for a change in working hours to be formally considered.

But even though the benefits are clear, and flexible working policies could help positively impact presenteeism rates, fear of judgement is a significant barrier to successful adoption.

According to the People at Work 2021 Report, 32 per cent of European employees feel judged for taking advantage of flexible working arrangements, with only 50 per cent feeling empowered to do so.

Furthermore, a significant proportion – 18 per cent of parents and 25 per cent of non-parents – say their managers actually allow less flexibility than that which the company has set out.

Companies must ensure that policies are consistently and fairly applied by managers and implemented as intended.

  1. Open lines of communication

The past 18 months has been taxing for both employees and employers, with economic hardship and business volatility a consistent and unwaning factor.

Unsurprisingly, this has given rise to or exacerbated pre-existing issues, such as presenteeism, leavism, long-term sickness absence, emotional strain, and reduced productivity.

Employers who take proactive steps to find sustainable solutions and support their employees through this challenging time will ultimately benefit from a healthier, motivated and resilient workforce.

Integral to this is the successful communication of and engagement with benefits.

A concerted effort should be made to ensure employees have a clear understanding of the treatment options available to them and that they feel able to seek help from management. Ongoing education around sickness issues, as well as the perils of presenteeism and leavism, can help to open a dialogue and foster a culture of openness and two-way communication.

With the fear of judgement eradicated or greatly reduced, there is greater potential for early interventions, workplace adjustments, and successful returns to work following periods of absence.

One thing that is for certain is that taking positive action to stem the rise of presenteeism is a prudent and conscientious business decision, as a failure to do so could hit productivity and morale at a critical time, as well as leave employees exposed to greater long-term problems.

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