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Why presenteeism is worse for businesses than calling in sick

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak gestures during a visit to the DHL Gateway port facility at Stanford Le Hope on the Thames estuary east of London, Monday, April 29, 2024. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein, Pool)
Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak wants to bring more people who are currently off work sick back in to work. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Rishi Sunak recently outlined a “moral mission” to reform welfare in the UK, to cut the benefits bill and bring people with health conditions back to work. He claimed a “sick note culture” is partly to blame for the rise in absenteeism – suggesting that people are allegedly taking sick leave when they’re actually well enough to work.

Not only is this untrue, it also disregards two growing problems in Britain’s workplaces that are worse for businesses than calling in sick: Presenteeism and poor mental health.

There is no doubt that rates of sick leave are rising in the UK. A report by CIPD found that the average rate of employee absence now stands at 7.8 days per employee per year, which marks a significant increase from five years ago, when the number stood at 5.8.

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That being said, workers in Britain take fewer days off sick each year than in other developed countries. For example, in 2022, employees in Germany reported sick for an average of 15 working days. In Finland, the average female employee took 14 sick days in 2022, while the average male worker took 12.

Presenteeism is worse for business

Focusing on sickness absence alone also fails to take into account the full impact of ill health on businesses. Presenteeism – when a worker is constantly present at work despite being unwell - is rife in UK workplaces, in part, because rates of sick pay are so low. In fact, research by the Health Foundation has found that there are as many people in work with ill health as there are those out of work.

There are many reasons why presenteeism is problematic – and perhaps even more of an issue than sick absences. According to research by Deloitte, people dragging themselves into the office costs UK employers up to £29bn a year in lost productivity and underperformance. Of absenteeism, labour turnover and presenteeism, the latter is the most costly.

Read more: Why stress at work is contagious, according to science

Presenteeism is intrinsically difficult to measure, but University of Sheffield researchers suggest that 1.5 days of work time are lost due to presenteeism for every one day lost due to absenteeism. Another survey by Vitality estimates that the equivalent of 35 days per person per year are lost to presenteeism in the UK.

A smartly-dressed businessman is resting in his office in front of his computer. He is tired and wants to go home. His face is not recognizable. Low-key lighting. Horizontal night-time indoor photo.
Presenteeism costs the UK money. Working too many hours is a contributing factor to poor mental health. Mental health problems cost the UK economy at least £117.9bn annually. (AnVr via Getty Images)

And significantly, presenteeism breeds presenteeism. When people force themselves into work when they’re unable to work, it creates toxic environments that lead to overwork as people putting in long hours increases the pressure on others to do the same. Instead of taking time off to recover, employees push themselves to the limit to fulfil this pressure to perform. Not only does this worsen their physical and mental health, it inhibits their ability to work effectively. If you’re unwell and exhausted, you’re unlikely to be doing your best work.

“The idea of presenteeism suggests a work environment where staff feel compelled to put in the hours even when they are not feeling well enough to do so,” says counsellor Georgina Sturmer. “This is likely to mean that staff are less productive in their work, but there’s also a cost in emotional terms. A member of staff who feels this way is likely to feel frustrated, resentful, overwhelmed or anxious, as well as unsupported and unappreciated.

“If staff aren’t able to recuperate when they are feeling unwell, then it might lead to more complex health challenges, which could then lead to more serious and prolonged absences from work,” she adds.

Rising cost of mental health problems

Overall, mental health problems cost the UK economy at least £117.9bn annually, which is equivalent to around 5% of the UK’s GDP. Nearly three quarters of the cost is due to the lost productivity of people living with mental health conditions, according to research by the Mental Health Foundation and the London School of Economics and Political Science, as well as the costs incurred by unpaid informal carers who provide mental health support.

And it’s easy to see why rates of poor mental health are rising astronomically in the UK. There are long NHS waiting lists for mental health support, rising levels of poverty and the cost of living crisis. Sky-high childcare costs – and the increasing price of residential care for older and disabled people – has no doubt contributed to widespread stress, anxiety and depression.

Read more: How to navigate a long hiring process with multiple interviews

Cracking down on sick leave also paradoxically often results in poorer mental health, as well as increased absenteeism and presenteeism – as employees aren’t able to take the time they need to recuperate from illness.

“Employees dealing with poor mental health are more likely to leave their jobs due to stress, burnout, dissatisfaction with their work environment, or feelings of being unsupported,” says Life Coach Directory member Lou O'Connell.

“The process of replacing these individuals can be costly, involving expenses such as recruitment, training, and onboarding, as well as the time it takes for the new hire to acclimate to the company's operations.”

And at a time when people are prioritising their health over their work, businesses that disregard the wellbeing of their employees risk tarnishing their reputation.

“Word spreads, whether through employee reviews on platforms like Glassdoor or through informal networks, and a damaged reputation can adversely affect recruitment, retention, and customer loyalty,” O’Connell adds. “Ultimately, businesses that neglect their employees' mental health not only jeopardise their workforce's well-being but also risk losing valuable talent and clientele.”

Watch: Managing stress at work

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