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01 Oct 2020

How to handle presenteeism and its effect on productivity in the age COVID-19

Presenteeism – working when unwell or feeling a disconnection to work – is estimated by the Centre for Mental Health to cost the UK economy £15.1 billion every year – and that is just for those with mental ill-health – highlighting the negative impact presenteeism has on productivity. And it is on the rise, according to CIPD/Simplyhealth’s Health and Well-being at Work survey (2018), 86% of employees witnessed presenteeism in 2018 versus 72% in 2016 and just 26% in 2010. Employers simply cannot afford to mishandle the issue amidst the global pandemic.


With working from home now the norm, and the virtual workplace replacing the traditional office, presenteeism has the potential to increase dramatically if proper support and policies are not put in place. Given the impact this has on productivity, presenteeism could put businesses – and individual wellbeing – on a dangerous trajectory.

Why presenteeism could rise during COVID-19

The virtual workplace has its benefits. It makes flexible working easier and means meetings and collaboration can still happen (mostly) effectively, even with people dotted all over the place. But this distanced way of working can also leave employees feeling a lack of connection to their colleagues and work as a whole. Stats show that when employees feel disconnected their productivity drops and searching for potential new employees increases.

Presenteeism rears its head when people turn up for work when sick or unhealthy. The chance of this happening when you remove the commute is even higher. Employees may feel like there’s no point taking a sick day when they are already at home and can still open the laptop to work at less than full strength. But this kind of working can be more harmful to overall productivity than just taking a day to recover as staff struggle to complete tasks when not 100%.

Research has already shown that people are struggling to switch off from work during the pandemic. Working and living in the same place is, understandably, making it difficult for people to separate work and home life. An office space, the commute, or even just being with different people helps book end the workday and separate it from people’s own time for relaxation, hobbies or socialising. Instead, people are feeling pressured to continue to answer emails into the evening or simply forget to have proper lunch breaks and leave work behind in the evening.

What companies can do to combat it

Combatting presenteeism requires businesses to take a proactive approach to employee wellbeing and to make sure their policies encourage rest and recovery rather than promoting an ‘always on’ ‘work at all costs’ culture.

Increase information about the warning signs of presenteeism and burnout. This could come in the form of management written blogs or by inviting experts in the area to speak in online webinars. Education can work as prevention.

This is all part of a strategy to promote rest and recovery. Make clear that your company values employees who are at full strength and would rather staff come to work firing on all cylinders than trying to force themselves through a workday when battling an illness. 

Removing any benefits or perks that are tied to attendance (these are less common than in the past, but do still exist) will send a clear message to your workforce that you value productive and healthy staff over robotic ‘punch the clock’ employees. Instead, offer access to mental health or wellbeing tools that help staff separate work and home life, and switch off when they need to – helping build their resilience in the long-term. Or perhaps look into the world of digital and telehealth that has seen a boost as the virtual workplace takes over.

These safety nets can apply to employers too. Having a sense of how your employees are doing before it it’s too late is a proactive approach that can stop presenteeism from developing. Using tools like Firstbeat Life give employers a company-wide overview of their staff’s health and wellbeing, with anonymised data showing which departments may need more attention than others.

Ultimately, staff need to know that they shouldn’t fight through issues that are impacting their ability to do their job. Prioritising their health may mean taking a sick day but it can help the business (and themselves) in the long run. Making it clear you don’t expect people to answer work emails after a certain time, or small things like managers alerting their team when they are logging off for the day, can let staff know it’s ok not to have the laptop open 24/7 when at home.

This article is provided by Firstbeat.

In partnership with Firstbeat Technologies

Firstbeat is the leading provider of physiological analytics for well-being and sports.

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