How can employers address presenteeism and leavism in the workplace?

Need to know:

  • Presenteeism and leavism are common: 84% of employers observed presenteeism during 2020 while 70% saw instances of leavism.
  • Blurred boundaries between home and work coupled with concerns about financial security exacerbated issues around presenteeism and leavism.
  • Good corporate culture, strong leadership and a focus on health and wellbeing can help to discourage presenteeism and leavism.

Bad practices such as presenteeism, where employees work when they’re ill, and leavism, where they work more than their contracted hours, have become widespread during the pandemic. But, with the long-term consequences damaging, employers must take steps to tackle these bad habits.

The latest Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD)/Simplyhealth Health and Wellbeing at Work report, which was published in April 2021, shows the extent of the problem. It found that 84% of employers had observed presenteeism over the previous 12 months. Figures for leavism are alarmingly high too, with 70% of employers saying they’d seen instances of this over the last year.

Blurred boundaries

The shift to remote working hasn’t helped according to Matthew Gregson, executive director, UK corporate at Howden Employee Benefits and Wellbeing. “It’s blurred the lines between work and life, making it much easier to work outside of normal hours,” he explains. “It’s also changed the decision-making criteria around working when ill. Rather than a binary decision around going into the workplace or not, an employee working from home might feel they can put in a few hours of work then take a nap.”

Money has also made these habits more common. Concerns about finances and job security have skyrocketed during the pandemic, with many employees trying to keep things afloat by putting in the extra hours.

The way employees are remunerated also influences behaviour. Meagre occupational sick pay, hourly pay and zero-hour contracts can mean employees feel compelled to work when unwell.

Preconceptions around health and work haven’t helped either. While there’s more focus on work-life balance now, having to battle into work with ‘man flu’ or work while on holiday are still seen as badges of honour in some workplaces. Charles Alberts, head of wellbeing solutions UK at Aon, says that stigmas around health can be very damaging too. “There are stigmas around many conditions, especially mental health, that prevent people taking the time off they need to get well,” he explains.

Unhealthy consequences

An occasional day working with a stinking cold or having to take a video call from the beach may be fine, but left unchecked, these bad practices can have serious implications for employees and employers. Dr Karen Michell, research programme lead, occupational health at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, explains: “If someone works through illness, it can take longer to get better. Over time, this can lead to chronic ill-health issues, increased risk of absence and even early retirement. It’s a downward spiral, with many people with presenteeism developing other health problems too.”

Muddling work and free-time is also bad for employees. “Psychologically disconnecting from work is essential,” says Alberts. “Without a break, employees can be at risk of burnout and other serious health conditions.”

Presenteeism and leavism are also bad for business. On the surface, although both mean more hours worked, they can also mean more mistakes, reduced productivity, increased long-term sickness absence and higher turnover.

Taking action

Given the consequences, it’s essential that employers take action to discourage these bad habits. Sadly, the CIPD report found that although more employers are taking steps to tackle presenteeism (45%) and leavism (41%), a significant proportion are either doing nothing (43% for presenteeism and 47% for leavism) or don’t know whether they’re doing anything (12% for each).

Company culture is critical. “Employers need to give staff guidance and reassurance so they know what is, and isn’t, expected of them,” says Gregson. “Letting them know that, although the extra hours are appreciated, they shouldn’t put their health at risk helps them feel comfortable about taking time out.”

As well as setting guidelines, Lucy Pearce, commercial director at Advo Group, says managers must set a good example. “This can be difficult as there’s so much pressure on them but showing staff that it’s ok to take a break or stop work at 5pm is one of the best ways to discourage presenteeism and leavism.”

Line manager training can help, and has become particularly important where staff work remotely. Without visual clues, good communication skills are essential to assess whether employees are coping with their workloads.

Dr Michell recommends a regular catch-up with remote staff. “Spending 10 minutes or so talking to an employee about their workload and how they’re managing is a must,” she says. “Managers need to be aware of what staff are working on and check they have enough capacity before they give them something new.”

Support network

It’s also prudent to take a strategic approach to tackling presenteeism and leavism. Pearce is an advocate of upskilling staff so they’re able to step up if someone’s off. “Mentoring and shadowing are great for personal development but also demonstrate that it’s ok to take time off as someone can cover your work,” she explains. “It’s also good for future-proofing the business.”

Having a central repository for key documents also helps to create a culture where employees feel they can prioritise their health and holidays. “Before an employee goes on holiday, their manager should run through all the projects they’re working on,” explains Dr Michell. “This helps both parties feel more relaxed about taking time off.”

Switching off email access when employees take holidays is another, much talked-about option. Although very effective at stopping someone from working while away, Gregson isn’t a fan of this type of absolute. “Some people will worry more about what they’re coming back to,” he explains. “Employers should give guidance but I don’t think they should dictate what employees do.”

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Remuneration may also warrant a review where an employer wants to tackle presenteeism. More generous sick pay or a shift from an hourly rate to a salary can make a significant difference and help to demonstrate that output, not hours, is the most important metric.

Health and wellbeing initiatives should also be a central part of the company culture, even when they appear to have nothing to do with presenteeism and leavism. “This will improve employees’ health literacy, making them more aware of different conditions and the support that’s available to help them,” explains Alberts. “I don’t think we’ll ever eliminate these issues completely but we do need to reverse the trend and costs associated with them.”