THE CONUNDRUM OF PRESENTEESM – TOO MUCH PRESSURE?
Most organisations now have written policies on absence management – but how well these are communicated to employees or how well managers actually manage sickness absence is another matter! Yet an understanding of absence management and an appreciation of its cost to the business is only half the story…
What is ‘presenteeism’?
‘Presenteeism’ is spoken about much less than sickness absence, and anecdotally it seems to be less understood as a concept. One way of looking at ‘presenteeism’ is the scenario of an employee being present at work whilst mentally or physically unwell or notably below par.
The generally accepted definition of presenteeism as being the act of employees attending work while ill does not capture the true nature or scope of the phenomenon of presenteeism.
We prefer to use an alternative which defines presenteeism as being “Reduced productivity at work due to health problems or other events that distract one from full productivity.”
A view on the impact of ‘presenteeism’ – Professor Cary Cooper
Professor Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Manchester Business School and President of the CIPD, has been increasing our understanding of organisational psychology for many years as the author of 120 books and some 400 articles for academic journals as well as appearing as a guest commentator on radio and television broadcasts. In 2014, HR Magazine voted him ‘The Most Influential HR Thinker in the UK’ and he certainly has a hefty following – not only by HR staff but clinicians and line managers keen to understand more about people at work and what makes them tick.
At the last CIPD conference Cary Cooper said that presenteeism is the biggest threat to UK productivity. That’s a big boost to the profile of presenteeism in management thinking.
His view that “workers coming in and doing nothing is more dangerous for the UK economy than absenteeism,” is a salutary warning given that the UK ranks sixth of out the G7 nations for productivity. He also signalled that the UK was heading in the direction of the US with what he called a “lethal” working culture. This is easy to see in the context of how the UK working hours culture stacks up against comparisons with our European neighbours – the UK has the fifth longest working week in Europe, ahead of Germany at 13th place and France, which came in 25th place. Cary Cooper tells us that there is no research to back up the belief of some senior managers that working long hours actually makes people more productive. In fact, he says, you will get ill if you do!
The cost of ‘presenteeism’
Research shows that the annual cost of presenteeism is twice that of absenteeism – a staggering statistic. Interestingly the CIPD Absence Management Report shows that “’presenteeism’ is more likely to have increased where long working hours are seen to be the norm and where operational demands take precedence over employee well-being”. A third of organisations report an increase in people coming to work ill in the last 12 months, according to the report.
In terms of knock on effects of presenteeism, the report highlights that those who have noticed an increase in presenteeism are nearly twice as likely to report an increase in stress-related absence and more than twice as likely to report an increase in mental health problems.
That does not bode well then for our attempts to contain and manage sickness absence overall – yet, worryingly, 56% of those who have noticed an increase in presenteeism have not taken any
steps to discourage it.
A new ‘ism’ in the mix?
Cary Cooper has also highlighted the concept of ‘leavism’ – people taking holidays to catch up on backlogs of work, particularly in the public sector. Similarly, staff don’t always take their full holiday entitlement, suggesting the presence of issues around managing work-life balance. This further compounds the problem of achieving a healthy, productive workforce.
Tackling the wider implications
Given the link between presenteeism and its relationship to increased absence for other causes, we need to look far more holistically at well-being – that means ensuring that there are ways for employees who are below par, physically and mentally, to feel comfortable about taking time off to get well and that people actually take their holidays!
A good deal of persuasion might be needed to get businesses and organisations to look proactively at the long game – but there’s great scope for the occupational health profession to partner with an organisation’s stakeholders to create strategies to stem the tide of presenteeism and this means tackling absence policies, training managers, addressing negative cultural norms and improving work – life balance. To find out more about COPE’s approach to supporting organisations to achieve this, please click here.