How to increase productivity by reducing presenteeism at work

By Robert Half on 12th February 2020

UK employees are now taking half the amount of sick days than they did in 1993. This doesn’t mean that sickness is at an all-time low.

Presenteeism at work is estimated to cost the UK economy £15.1bln every year, with potentially harmful effects to business progress. Especially at a time when UK businesses are searching for ways to increase productivity at work.

Below we explore the ‘presenteeism’ epidemic, how it can be harmful to businesses and various ways to improve workplace productivity by counteracting presenteeism culture.

Related: Is presenteeism affecting your workplace?

What is ‘presenteeism’?

In its simplest form, ‘presenteeism’ has been defined by Gary Johns (2010) as ‘The most recent scholarly conception of presenteeism involves showing up for work when one is ill.’ 

Presenteeism is the opposite of ‘absenteeism’ (regular unplanned absences from work – like calling in sick) and can be due to a number of factors. Company culture, a stressful workload, or the attitude and expectations of a senior manager can all contribute to a presenteeism culture. Employees who are feeling insecure in their roles and concerned about not wanting absenteeism to be reflected on the staff record can also be a key contributor. 

Presenteeism vs productivity

Professor Sir Gary Cooper of Manchester University proclaimed presenteeism to be a bigger threat than absenteeism for UK businesses where workplace productivity is concerned, costing the UK economy twice as much. There are several reasons for this

• Other employees may become ill
The only thing worse than being ‘a man down’ is being an entire team down! When you encourage a sick employee to be present in the workplace, you run the very real risk of infecting the rest of your team with the same illness. A team of sick employees is sure to derail any efforts to increase productivity at work.

• Employee recovery is hindered
One of the best ways to recover from illness is to allow the body and mind time to rest. The effort needed to commute to the office and focus on work-related tasks can slow down the recovery process, causing even longer delays to productivity efforts. 

• Employee output is decreased
When an employee is ill at work, their focus and mental capacity is diminished. You may think you’re pushing a project forward by encouraging a sick employee to come in, but you may be likely to do more harm than good.

Presenteeism at work: solutions for improving workplace productivity

Here are some of the ways in which you can increase productivity at work by counteracting the culture of presenteeism.

1. Lead by example

According to CIPD’s 2018 Health and Well-Being at Work survey, only a quarter (25%) of survey respondents who had witnessed high levels of presenteeism at work had seen their organisation take steps to remedy it. 

One of the most impactful ways of improving workplace productivity is to encourage a culture that values the health and wellbeing of employees over profits or deadlines. 

Matt Weston, Managing Director of Robert Half UK commented, ‘education is 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.”

As a manager or business leader, set an example by taking sick days yourself and encouraging your employees to go home and rest if they appear ill. They take their lead from you, so let them know it’s okay!

2. Identify the causes of work-related stress or sickness

Our research shows that over half (56%) of employers see an increase in presenteeism during times of stress. Workplace productivity can be boosted by attempting to understand the causes of stress and tackling them with additional support for employees.

Rachel Suff (Senior Employment Relations Adviser at the CIPD) has commented on the issue:

‘Increasingly the threats to well-being in the modern workplace are psychological rather than physical, and yet too few organisations are discouraging unhealthy workplace practices and tackling stress, which is strongly linked to health conditions such as anxiety and depression.’ 

She continues, ‘…organisations need to look beyond sickness absence rates alone and develop a solid, evidence-based understanding of the underlying causes of work-related stress and unhealthy behaviour like presenteeism.’

3. Wellbeing programmes

One of the most popular ways to improve workplace productivity is to establish a workplace wellbeing programme. Research for our 2020 Salary Guide showed that 39% of UK employers planned to use wellbeing programmes as a method of attracting and retaining talent. 

Weston continues, “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.”

4. Flexible working

Presenteeism at work can be reduced by encouraging employees to work remotely or to take a more flexible approach to work schedules. 45% of businesses are already offering flexible working as a way to boost employee wellbeing, considering its popularity as a workplace benefit. The more used to working from home an employee becomes, the easier it will be for them to feel as though it’s okay to not be in the office all the time. 

For additional inspiration on ways to improve workplace productivity or for more articles on people management, subscribe to our enewsletter. 

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