Dr Christine Grant and Professor Gail Kinman: How can employers address presenteeism among a virtual workforce?

Covid-19 (Coronavirus) has presented organisations with a major challenge regarding how they manage and stabilise their staffing resources. Many organisations are experiencing considerable uncertainty during the post-pandemic recovery phase and there are concerns about retention of key staff as individuals re-evaluate their working and personal lives. The move to remote working provided many employees and employers with the impetus to finally realise a more versatile/flexible style of working.

While remote working offers many benefits, including increased flexibility to accommodate individuals’ needs and preferences and financial savings for organisations, there is also a downside. The productivity gains for remote workers are well documented, but this style of working can lead to enabled intensification where flexibility and access to technology 24/7 can encourage people to work longer and harder. Employers have benefited from this productivity boost but employees risk becoming invisible, with workloads increasing and the need to be ‘seen’ to be working at all times of the day by responding promptly to emails and requests for work.

Working remotely, while highly productive, can not only encourage people to work longer hours, but to continue working when they are sick – known as presenteeism. People work while sick for several reasons: it can be therapeutic and functional, but also dysfunctional leading to a downward spiral where future health and productivity is impaired and the risks of errors enhanced. This is a particular problem in safety critical work. With increased job insecurity and uncertainty during Coronavirus the risk of presenteeism has increased, as many individuals are feeling pressure to continue working to show loyalty to their organisation.

Time out for sick leave may not be seen favourably by some organisations and can also be limited access to sick pay, especially for people working in smaller organisations or who are employed on short-term contracts. Sickness absence for mental health problems can be particularly stigmatised and people may continue to work out of concern about the negative perceptions of colleagues and managers.

Presenteeism can be difficult to detect in remote workers, as it is harder for managers to monitor sickness or signs of struggle in online conversations. Nonetheless, employers are increasingly seeing presenteeism as a serious health and safety concern and a threat to organisational recovery and success. Employers should encourage their managers to keep in touch with staff, with regular check ins for remote workers. Identifying signs of struggle in employees is also crucial, so it is important to become familiar with the signs and symptoms that mean they need to take time out. Encouraging staff to take time off sick when required and not to return to work too soon is also crucial. Managers are powerful role models in organisations, so they should be seen to prioritise their own self-care, switching off at the end of the day and refraining from work when unwell. For individuals, being encouraged to seek occupational health support and/or counselling can help if their health problems are chronic or reoccurring.

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Dr Christine Grant is a chartered and registered occupational psychologist, and associate fellow, Centre for Healthcare Research, at Coventry University

Professor Gail Kinman is visiting professor of occupational health psychology at Birkbeck University of London, a chartered psychologist with the British Psychological Society and a fellow of the Higher Education Academy