5 ways to manage presenteeism in the workplace


Presenteeism has been a discussion point for several years but appears to be an issue that many organisations still have not properly got to grips with.

Recent research conducted by Willis Towers Watson Health & Benefits found more than half (51%) of UK workers claim their workplaces are affected by a culture of negative judgement around sickness absence.

On top of this, 54% claim they are put under pressure to return to work before they are fully recovered from illness or injury, which highlights a clear challenge for business. This suggests that either there are problems with the policies and structures used to tackle sickness absence or issues with communication - leading to a disconnection with staff that causes them to believe they are not able to take adequate sick leave.

No matter the reason, there is an onus on employers to take positive action on the issue of presenteeism, as a failure to do so could hit productivity and morale, as well as leaving employees exposed to greater long-term problems.

We take a look at five ways to tackle the issue:

1) Review policies that discourage sickness absence 

Although many companies have policies to manage absenteeism, presenteeism is rarely afforded the same consideration.

This lack of understanding, combined with aggressive absence policies to prevent abuse of sick days, can unwittingly promote presenteeism.

Indeed, Willis Towers Watson research in The Willis Towers Watson Employee Benefits and Wellbeing Barometer which explores attitudes to employee benefits among UK workers, has found a fear of a negative impact on job prospects is the number one reason workers feel under pressure to return to work before they are ready. 

Procedures should be reviewed and revised if required to promote trust, encouraging employees to take time off when necessary without them fearing that it might negatively impact their job security.

Corporate policies should be supportive and properly communicated and understood by all managers and employees.

2) Strike the right balance

Businesses are faced with a fine balancing act between managing staff back to work as quickly and efficiently as possible and ensuring they do not work through health conditions.

This is where a proactive approach can reap rewards. Case management led by occupational health practitioners can identify early interventions to prevent conditions becoming more serious, through appropriate treatment and workplace adjustments.

HR professionals and managers should also be provided guidance to help them identify the early signs of illness and make informed judgements about when referrals are required.

The traditional ‘stiff upper lip’ approach frequently does not work. It’s not only because encouraging staff to work through illness can affect productivity and morale, but also because minor illnesses, such as colds or stomach bugs can mask other health issues such as stress and emotional problems.

3) Implement appropriate benefits schemes

The business cost of presenteeism is comparable to that caused by sickness absence. There is potential for employees to become unproductive or disengaged because they feel they are being overworked or forced to struggle on through illness.

It is therefore important to listen to staff in order to identify health trends and offer the appropriate benefits and wellbeing initiatives.

Health screenings and health risk assessments can be useful tools in helping to unearth root causes for health issues. Employee feedback and claims data can then also be helpful in tailoring benefits to need.

For example, cash plans can be a cost-effective option for staff with musculoskeletal issues, allowing them to seek physiotherapy, while the counseling and support offered as part of employee assistance programmes may be useful in targeting stress and mental health issues.

4) Accommodate and promote flexible working

Studies have shown that flexible working can increase productivity and reduce stress – but companies need to do more to promote such arrangement to counter presenteeism.

Thanks to advancements in technology, opportunities for flexible working are greater than ever and employees have a legal right for any request for a change in working hours to be formally considered.

Flexible working will help an employee who has been off for a long period of time reintegrate back into the workforce and will lessen the risk of them becoming ill again from being overworked and overwhelmed.

5) Open lines of communication

Employee engagement is key to changing the current situation and is a common thread running through all of the previous points.

It is important that employees have a clear understanding of the treatment options available to them and feel able to seek help from management. Ongoing education around sickness issues, through briefings, seminars and email bulletins for example, can also help to open a dialogue and further understanding.

Ultimately, by creating a culture of openness and two-way communication, it is possible to provide employees with the reassurance they need to discuss conditions without fear of judgement. In turn, this will offer greater potential for early interventions and successful returns to work following periods of absence.

This article was provided by Willis Tower Watson.


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