According to CIPD research, 90% of HR people surveyed said they had witnessed people coming to work when they really should have stayed at home because of illness. 
 
It has earned its own name – “Presenteeism”. But is it really a problem? 
 
Surely the point of a good absence management process is to make people think hard about taking time off sick, and to encourage them to come to work if they are able? To reduce overall absences. And if that means people come to work when they might have taken the day off, that’s all for the good…isn’t it? 
I think business owners and team managers should be very worried about presenteeism.  
 
It says something about the culture of a company if employees think they have to come to work even when they are actually very ill. 
 
It says your employees are frightened. 
 
Frightened that the consequences of not coming to work are more serious than safeguarding their own health and wellbeing.  
 
"My employer would rather I work than get well". Is that really the kind of employer you want to be? How valued are those employees going to feel? 
 
The survey also suggests there is evidence that increased presenteesim is associated with increases in some mental health conditions, as well as stress-related absence. In other words - you are just storing up bigger problems for the future. 
 
I’ve introduced absence management procedures into many companies, and I know from that experience that a well-designed system with well-trained managers operating it will always result in a reduction in absence. 
 
Absence management processes usually work pretty well on days when employees wake up with a bit of a headache or a bit of a sore throat. Those 50/50 days when you could as easily turn over and snuggle back to sleep as get out of bed and go to work. When you are debating whether to ring in with the croaky voice to talk about the fake GP appointment, or just go to work and feel a bit rubbish but be perfectly capable of working well. In other words, when you are well enough to go really, but you just don’t feel like it. Then, a well-designed absence management system will persuade most people to get out of bed and go to work if they can. 
 
But those processes should also recognise, and enable managers to respond appropriately to, the times when an employee is genuinely poorly and unable to function productively. The heavy colds or flu that leave you wiped out and feeling exhausted for days. Genuine sickness bugs and other more serious illnesses that have a similar effect. The sort of problem that strikes us – if we are very lucky – only once every couple of years or so. 
 
The problem with people coming to work when they are genuinely sick is that they are much less productive than normal. Research by Nottingham Business School in 2017 found that the average UK employee spends around 2 weeks of the year at work while they are ill. At worst, some employees calculate they are operating at only around 20% of full capacity when at work while sick. 
 
The average employee functions at 84% on the days they work while ill, amounting to lost productivity of over £4,000 per employee.  
 
As they spread their germs around the rest of the workforce, everyone else becomes much less productive. Concentration levels drop, mistakes creep in and accidents increase.  
 
Quality of service will fall. The cost to employers will rise. 
 
And after a full day at work (when they are feeling exhausted, distracted and ready to drop into bed) they may have to drive home, risking their own safety and that of other road users. 
 
Worst of all – by trying to plough on with work, the body takes longer to recover and return to full health. Which, for employers, means lower productivity for a much longer period.  
 
So you might actually be better off telling your employees to take a couple of days off, stay in bed, and come back to work when they are feeling better and less likely to infect everyone else. 
 
I’m all for people being committed to their jobs, but if a workplace culture encourages presenteeism, and fear of losing their job takes priority over an employee’s own health and safety, I believe we have a problem.  
 
As we enter into cold and flu season, how confident do you feel about having conversations with people about their absence or their health issues? Do you know what to say or do? And are you confident your interventions always have the desired effect? 
 
I’d love to know what you find tricky about managing absence at work. 
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