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Blog: The rising challenge of presenteeism

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10th Dec 2012
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The recent Chartered Management Institute/Simplyhealth report, “The Quality of Working Life 2012” surveyed over 1,000 managers in 2007 and 2012 and showed the impact of the recession on UK workplaces.

In 2012, managers are now working longer hours due to larger workloads; increasingly they are suffering from ill health including stress and depression; and they are more likely to come to work when they are sick.  Major findings of the report included the following:

1. Organisational change – about 92% of managers had experienced organisational change in the last year and this included major change such as organisational restructuring (83%) or compulsory redundancies (42%).

2. Unpaid overtime – with the average manager now working around 46 days unpaid overtime per year which is up from 40 days in the 2007 study. 60% of those working overtime feel they have no choice due to the volume of work, and 29% worked long hours which was because job cuts had increased their workload.

3. ‘Presenteeism’ rises – 43% managers believe people do not take sick leave when they are ill, and this is an 11% increase from 32% in 2007. Managers also felt that organisations are not so tolerant of people taking sick leave.

Will there be any improvement in the next year?  With more redundancies and downsizing in many companies, presenteeism levels will rise and it is now vital that HR professionals and managers not only consider their own workloads, but the workload of their staff. Taking small steps can and will reduce presenteeism and below are three areas which can help.  A recent CIPD/Simply Health survey found that nearly a third of employers have reported a rise in presenteeism in the past year. It found that stress-related absence and mental health problems were increasing.  Dr Jill Miller, research adviser at CIPD, said: “On the face of it, the findings from this year's survey present some positive news, but we must air caution before celebrating lower absence levels because they may be masking deeper problems in the workplace. "This year sees a continued increase in presenteeism which can have a damaging effect on organisations’ productivity. Not only can illnesses be passed on to other colleagues, but ill employees are likely to work less effectively than usual, may be more prone to making costly mistakes and take longer to recover from their illnesses.   “Continuing economic uncertainty and fears over job security appears to be taking its toll on employees. We are seeing employees struggling into work to demonstrate their commitment, suggesting presenteeism can be a sign of anxiety.  Reducing presenteeism  “Failing to address employees’ concerns is likely to confound the issue, impact on morale and commitment and may cause or exacerbate stress or mental health problems.”   Dr Miller urged employers to examine if lower absence levels were due to effective management or because of presenteeism and suggested that better training for managers in “supporting employee wellbeing and managing absence”.   The main worry is how they can manage presenteeism especially when they feel that absence levels have reduced. There is a clear correlation between wellbeing programmes and improved productivity and motivation. Most of the research has been carried out in the United States but they are now slowly identifying the benefits. A wellbeing programme does not have to be a costly one and in many organisations, large or small, a few areas can be tackled such as below. Three areas that will improve wellbeing and help reduce presenteeism are:  1. Ensure that everyone including managers takes a break away from their desk or workspace. This not only improves productivity but also helps to improve blood circulation by ensuring that people move more, thus increasing oxygen to the brain. 2. All meals to be taken in a staff room or canteen – if you don’t have one, see if you can organise a corner of a room or use a room which may be used for storage. This not only helps people to get away from their desk, but encourages them to take time to eat a healthier meal remembering ‘5 a day fruit and/or vegetables’. Being away from a computer and desk helps to keep it clean and free from food particles which can harbour infection. 3. Use the stairs and not the lift – exercise no matter how mild helps give a ‘feel good’ feeling afterwards and also acts as a motivator if you time yourself each time. Think about a team challenge and get pedometers to see who walks the most in a day/week/month.  

Jessica Smyrl is founder and director of HR consultancy, YSM Solutions.

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