HR & Legal Adviser (non-practising solicitor) Make Business, part of Make UK
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Presenteeism and leaveism: can you recognise these attendance problems in your workplace?

8th Jul 2019
woman blowing her nose at her work desk
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Attendance statistics only tell part of the story when it comes to your employees’ motivations and behaviour. Here, we look at some of the red flags for presenteeism and leaveism and how to encourage a healthier working culture.

Absenteeism continues to be a thorn in the side of many HR professionals. Recent studies have shown that this is not the only attendance management problem for HR, however.

Take a moment to see if the characters below are familiar to you…

  • Mucus-trouping Melvin: takes pride in turning up to work even though he is knocking on death’s door with some horribly contagious lurgy.
  • Major stress Tess: is normally a good performer but she is suffering in silence after a traumatic divorce. Sick with stress, Tess can’t focus and takes work on holiday to try and meet her deadlines.
  • All-work-and-no-play makes Jack: a high performing workaholic. He loves work but hardly ever switches off and rarely takes annual leave.
  • Must-try-harder Tristan: is performing badly in a role that’s too demanding for him but he’s trying to keep up by working late and at the weekends.
  • Put-upon Pippa: is a top performer but she can’t say no. Pippa works part-time and exceeds all her targets but only by working secretly on her days off to meet unrealistic deadlines.

If you recognise similar employees at your workplace, don’t carry on regardless.

Any one of these individuals could, ultimately, pose a serious liability to your organisation (and to themselves). Why? They are all displaying signs of presenteeism and/or leaveism - two attendance management problems that are becoming increasingly prevalent in the workplace.

Presenteeism versus leaveism

Rather than employees failing to come to work because they are sick (i.e. absenteeism), many are coming into work when they are sick. This is known as presenteeism.  

A business dictionary definition of presenteeism describes it as ‘the practice of staying at work longer than usual or when you are ill, to show that you work hard and are important to your employer’.

Would you be able to spot the tipping point where the (successful or struggling) employee has pushed themselves (or has been pushed) too far and is at risk of mental and/or physical illness?

Leaveism occurs where employees either use allocated time off (such as annual leave or rostered rest days) for sickness, take work home that they cannot complete in normal hours, or work while on holiday or during other leave to catch up.

All of our characters above suffer in some form or other from either presenteeism or leaveism, or both. It’s common for presenteeism to feed into leaveism, where stress-related illness is resulting in unproductive time at work, causing employees to take their work home or on holiday.

Red flags

Presenteeism and leaveism aren’t always easy to spot. High performing employees such as superwoman Pippa or dedicated Melvin and Jack are often lauded by their managers for their work ethic.

Conversely, stressed or struggling, poor performers like Tess and Tristan just about manage to keep their heads above water (and under HR’s radar) by hiding their problems through leaveism.

Would you be able to spot the tipping point where the (successful or struggling) employee has pushed themselves (or has been pushed) too far and is at risk of mental and/or physical illness?

To help you identify presenteeism and leaveism, here are some of the red flags that you should be looking out for.

Presenteeism

  • Noticeable level of mistakes: making more mistakes than usual is common.
  • Poor quality work and/or low levels of productivity: this can be accompanied by a seeming lack of care or pride in the employee’s work.
  • Poor time-keeping: arriving late and leaving early, particularly if the employee is ill and can only just manage to work their contracted hours.
  • Excessively long hours: in contrast to the above, others might sit at their desk for hours but struggle to get anything done.
  • Working whilst obviously sick: this isn’t so difficult to spot – tissues and paracetamol on the desk are often a clue.
  • Showing signs of tiredness and exhaustion: sometimes this can be accompanied by poor appearance or personal grooming.
  • Erratic or aggressive behaviour, tearfulness and low mood: deteriorating relationships with colleagues and poor communication can also be evident.

Leaveism

  • Constant connection: employees are rarely logged off, constantly available on the phone and frequently emailing outside of business hours.
  • Reluctance to book and take annual leave: HR has to chase an employee to take their annual leave or they routinely carry over unused leave.
  • Lack of trust and inability to hand over projects: inability to ‘let go’ of a project or entrust it to a colleague during annual leave.
  • Cancelling annual leave at the last minute: cancelling or postponing leave as soon as an important event occurs at work where the employee is reluctant to hand over to others.
  • Finishing off work at the weekend or taking it on holiday in order to meet deadlines: never completing proper holiday notes because the employee would prefer to complete the work themselves.

Risks

If you can’t spot leaveism or presenteeism in the workplace, you could be facing significant human resources problems such as employee stress and burnout, increased risk of mental illness, the spread of contagious illness, and low employee morale.

There are also potential business issues including the cost of an increased number of mistakes, low productivity, poor performance, safety risks and high employee turnover.  

Due to the often-secretive nature of leaveism and presenteeism, HR need to look beyond absence statistics and be alert to the red flags.

Presenteeism and leaveism can trigger a number of employment law liabilities for your organisation including breaches of health and safety laws, working time regulations and, where disability is involved, failure to make reasonable adjustments.

The government’s ‘Thriving at Work’ report estimates that presenteeism costs employers in the UK between £17 billion and £26 billion every year.

Take action

There are a number of measures that organisations can take to help tackle leaveism and presenteeism in the workplace.

1. Do not rely on absence data as the sole indicator of employee wellbeing.

Restricting the focus to absenteeism gives a misleading picture of employee wellbeing.

Due to the often-secretive nature of leaveism and presenteeism, HR need to look beyond absence statistics and be alert to the red flags mentioned earlier.

2. Ensure that attendance management policies do not promote presenteeism and leaveism.

Overly rigid adherence to attendance policies can prompt presenteeism or leaveism, with employees fearful of taking a sick day and triggering a performance or disciplinary threshold.

A margin of flexibility is recommended so that the policy can provide supportive outcomes, particularly in the case of mental health problems, rather than purely punitive ones.

3. Monitor workload and compliance with legal obligations.  

In the current climate of job insecurity and ‘lean working practices’ many employees are susceptible to workload pressures.

There are not always easy (or easily affordable) answers to improving workload distribution, but organisations must be aware of their legal obligations, such as health and safety and working time requirements, as well as duties to make reasonable adjustments for employees who may be struggling due to a disability.

4. Encourage role modelling and a culture that doesn’t ignore (or promote) presenteeism or leaveism.

Senior management can make a significant impact on reducing attendance problems by displaying positive wellbeing practices such as:

  • Not working excessively long hours.
  • Taking regular breaks and using their annual leave.
  • Disconnecting from technology when they are on leave and making it clear that this should be the norm for their employees.
  • Working flexibly.
  • Docussing on outputs rather than work input.
  • Removing the stigma associated with mental health conditions by sharing first hand experiences of dealing with stress or mental illness.

5. Provide line managers with training so that they can spot the red flags.

Line managers need to be able to pick up the early warning signs of presenteeism and leaveism.

They should be equipped to provide an adequate first response, from holding sensitive conversations that highlight the problem, to signposting employees to specialist help.

Mental Health First Aid training is one option that could be beneficial.

6. Develop an employee wellbeing strategy with buy-in from senior managers.

A sensible strategy with affordable measures that target the actual needs of a particular workforce is recommended (rather than throwing free fruit and yoga classes at employees under a wellbeing banner and hoping for the best).

This requires careful research, for example, through employee surveys or focus groups and, crucially, buy-in from senior management.

A recent CIPD report found that simply having a wellbeing strategy did not discourage presenteeism, but organisations with senior managers who acknowledged the importance of wellbeing were more likely to reduce presenteeism.

Interested in this topic? Read Five things about presenteeism you don't know.

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By Emma Langton
09th Jul 2019 09:49

Such important points in the article Lucy. I'm currently carrying out a survey around what is included in effective wellbeing plans and no 6 is showing up as companies thinking that a cake sale to raise awareness of MH charities will do the job!

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