Assistant Solicitor Curtis Law LLP
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Legal Insight: Health matters part 3 - Tackling presenteeism

3rd May 2012
Assistant Solicitor Curtis Law LLP
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‘Presenteeism’ can have many meanings.

On the one hand, the term can refer to employees who feel that they need to be at the office for longer than everyone else in order to show the boss how dedicated they are.    On the other, it can apply to staff members who turn up for work when really they should be on sick leave – and it is this group that we will deal with here.   In the second of this three-part series, we explored the issue of absenteeism, which many employers are now starting to take more seriously. But the same is not necessarily true of presenteeism. A key issue in this context is that many employers are failing to get the balance right.  Although it is important to manage sickness absence and help people get back to work as soon as they are able, it is also vital not to lean too far the other way and create an environment in which they feel obliged to attend work regardless of whether they are fit enough to do so or not.   Although still not widely recognised, presenteeism costs employers almost twice as much as absenteeism. The Centre for Mental Health calculated that presenteeism caused by mental ill health issues alone costs the UK economy around £15.1 billion a year, whereas absenteeism comes in at ‘only’ £8.4 billion.    As for causes, it is widely thought to be the result of a growing ‘long-hours culture’. Some employees appear to believe that, if they stay at their desk for longer, they are more likely to be noticed and, therefore, rewarded with promotions and pay rises.   Leading by example  Others seem to feel unable to leave the office if the boss is still there in case it looks like that they are less devoted to their employer, while yet others apparently feel under pressure to make it into work no matter what because of a pervasive presentee culture or because they are concerned about job security.   In some instances, managers may also have been so concerned about stamping out ‘unauthorised’ absences that any, whether genuine or not, are now frowned upon.   While this situation was traditionally more of a problem in professional services sectors such as accountancy and law, in more recent years it has also spread to other businesses too.    But it is a serious problem and one that managers must address by leading by example. Employees cannot be expected to take time off to recover from illness if their own bosses carry on regardless as it sends out the message that everyone should attend work, regardless of their state of health.    Inevitably, if employees are terrified of taking time off for fear of reprisals, presenteeism rates will almost certainly soar. Staff may struggle into the office and ‘bravely’ carry on, but they will in the process be both less productive and pose more of a health and safety risk because of the danger of passing on germs to colleagues, which just results in the cycle repeating itself.   While Tesco and the Royal Mail were praised in the press a few years ago for tackling absenteeism by giving prizes to personnel with clean absence records and restricting company sick pay, the problem is that such approaches can lead to people turning up to work when they should be at home.    Restricting company sick pay to just a few days a year is one way of addressing an absence problem, but employers should take care to draft policies giving themselves absolute discretion as to the level of sick pay that will be provided.   Possible measures  Introducing a blanket policy of paying basic statutory sick pay to all staff members after, say, just a few days’ leave risks boosting presenteeism as a lot of people would rather struggle into work than lose valuable wages.    Instead employers should ideally operate a flexible policy that not only allows them the discretion to grant full pay to individuals with a genuine reason for absence - if, for example, they are recovering from an operation - but also enables them to handle more suspicious, habitual and problematic absences effectively.   But what else can be done? When a sick employee turns up to work, the best thing that an employer can do is send them home on sick leave.   Such action addresses the initial concern of spreading germs to others and removes any potential risk caused by staff members who are not operating at 100%. This is a particularly important consideration in situations where employees are operating potentially dangerous machinery.   But employees should likewise not be encouraged to work from home or to stay at work if they are ill - and all managers should be suitably trained to tackle the issue.   There is no point in having a policy that is intended to discourage presenteeism if managers on the ground are still making workers feel bad for taking time off.   But many employees also say that they work when ill because of a belief that no-one else is available to cover their workload, which means that it would simply not get done.   Therefore, if possible, ensure that everyone knows who else can help them out if they need to take time off work.  Preventive steps   There are many ways to tackle both absenteeism and presenteeism that shouldn’t cause too much upheaval. Here are some possible options:  

  1. Permit staff to carry over sick days from one year to the next. One ‘flu season’ may be much less severe than the next one and people may have years in which they are healthier than others. Allowing them to carry over unused sick days may help to encourage proper recovery. If someone is concerned that they will lose their contractual sick pay halfway through a severe bout of flu, they are very likely to struggle back into the office regardless of whether they are fit to do so or not.
  2. Provide staff with the opportunity to take up screening or vaccination in order to try to avoid them succumbing to illness in the first place.
  3. If at all possible provide employees with health and fitness facilities, or at least subsidise access to such facilities, in order to help them maintain year-round health and better equip them to fight off illness.
  4. Find out if your healthcare provider provides telephone assistance or a website that staff can access for healthcare advice. Some suppliers offer additional occupational health visits to offices in order to advise employees on ways in which they can reduce repetitive strain injury and other workplace-related problems and injuries.
  5. Provide support for those personnel who cover absent colleagues’ work and offer incentives or rewards for the help that they give. Also make sure employees know that, if necessary, a temp or locum will be brought in to cover their workload if there really is no-one else in the organisation who can help while they are off.

  Another consideration is that sickness-related presenteeism is linked closely to general presenteeism, of which the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development’s definition is people feeling “obliged to work longer hours than are necessary simply to impress management”.   Many employers now acknowledge that staying late in the office does not necessarily mean that employees are more productive - or even doing any work. However, the perception that such activity is necessary is proving hard to eradicate.   Staying late for the sake of it, or because it is expected, is not conducive to the creation of a productive environment. Moreover, situations where the general work culture makes staff members feel that they still need to be at their desks at 8pm often has a knock-on effect on sickness absence.   Therefore, if presenteeism is starting to become a serious problem, employers may find it necessary to hold meetings with individual employees in order to explain how seriously the matter is being taken.   If no improvement results, as in the case of persistent absenteeism, disciplinary action may be required. It is important that everyone understands that ‘playing the hero’ and turning up to work when they really should be at home is simply not acceptable.   The cost to business of absenteeism, presenteeism and other sickness-related absences can be huge. But with the right policies and procedures in place as well as a healthy dollop of effective management, the situation can be tackled without having a big or negative impact on employees’ day-to-day lives. 

Kate Watson is an assistant solicitor at legal firm, Curtis Law LLP.

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