How to manage presenteeism in the workplace and at the kitchen table

Although there are competing definitions of presenteeism, it’s broadly accepted that it describes attending work while physically or psychologically unwell, to the extent that productivity decreases.

How to manage presenteeism in the workplace and at the kitchen table

By its nature, presenteeism is difficult to identify, although the basic psychological desire to accomplish certain tasks when our physiology is unable to match the demands of the workload has been around for a long time. The simple truth is that many employees will ‘soldier on’ despite illness, whether for financial reasons or simply because they feel that they’re doing the right thing.

Given the current situation, it wasn’t surprising that in a recent address at a joint session of the Health and Social Care Committee and the Science and Technology Committee, the Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock, emphasised that the trend for UK employees going into work when they’re unwell ‘had to change’.

Even before the pandemic, presenteeism came with its risks to the workplace. On top of the potential for costly workplace blunders, working when unwell can indirectly undermine job performance and reduce workplace productivity. And that’s before you even consider the direct impact on employees longer-term physical and mental health and their ability to recover.

Presenteeism when the workplace is the home

Worryingly, our recent Age of Ambiguity research revealed that the percentage of employees taking zero sick days over a three-month period had risen 17 percentage points since before the pandemic (67% in February to 84% in August), and more than a third (34%) said they have carried on working even when they felt unwell.

Homeworking meant that many employees found it hard to switch off because the structure of the day. In addition, balancing work and home life in the same location was stressful, with employees feeling they are never entirely at work, yet never fully away from it. Between a rock and a hard place, our research showed that almost half of employees (44%) feel like they never fully switch off from work.

Presenteeism solutions for employers

So how can employers provide solutions to presenteeism? The first step is in recognising the tell-tale signs, and this is where line manager training is important. Line managers have the eyes and ears to identify a wide range of behaviours that point to presenteeism, spotting crucial differences between employees who are simply aspirational and those who need help.

Combine that with a vibrant company culture where employees feel comfortable to speak out when they’re feeling under pressure, then make sure the culture is aligned to technological support. From app-based mental health checkers to online talking therapies, it’s vital employees find end-to-end support tailored to their needs before there’s a significant impact on their ability to perform their role at work – or at home.

Insurance companies have a key role to play here, specifically those that offer workplace health insurance and protection support. Often, these policies can provide practical solutions through early intervention services. These interventions offer benefits for both employer and employee: employees recover faster while the employer helps prevent a long-term absence.

For many, home is the workplace right now and it’s likely to continue for some time. The good news is that almost all the potential workplace presenteeism remedies outlined in this article can be applied remotely or at a (social) distance.

However, the big caveat is that all of the above needs to be supported with the right behaviours from the top down. It’s all very well encouraging employees to take time off when they’re unwell, but if their leaders’ practice presenteeism themselves or still expect online messages to be answered when they or their colleagues are unwell, it only serves to ‘legitimise’ the behaviour. Moreover, the line manager’s ability to lead their own team is likely to be compromised if they’re feeling unwell and/or under pressure.

Presenteeism is like sprinting an ultra-marathon, without adequate pacing or rest- you just will not complete the race or get injured in the process.

The author is Dr Subashini M, associate clinical director at Aviva UK health and protection.

This article is provided by Aviva UK health and protection.

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