Dr Thomas Calvard: The health effects of presenteeism on employees

Dr Thomas Calvard

Presenteeism, or attending work while ill, has become a subject of interest in HR practice and research over the past decade. Since 2010, as reported by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) in its Health and wellbeing at work survey, most recently published in May 2018, presenteeism has hit a record high in UK organisations in 2018. There are also growing reports of related ‘leavism’, or using annual leave to work.

It is, therefore, timely to ask about the effects of presenteeism in terms of stress and mental health, as well as how to address them.

Evidence from occupational medicine, psychology and ergonomics can help understand the economic and health effects of presenteeism. This suggests that presenteeism is an employee risk factor over time for future absence and decreased health. Reduced productivity estimates are likely to vary widely and be unreliable or inflated, yet they are certainly significant; to the tune of somewhere in the region of several thousand pounds per employee per annum. The important figure to try to determine is the number of days employees turn up to work when ill.

HR practitioners and researchers, as well as managers and employees, should break the complexity of presenteeism down in order to better tackle its ‘invisibility’ in a broader sense. Multiple aspects of wellbeing should be recognised, including the physical, mental, social, and financial, as well as different types of short-term versus long-term health conditions.

There appear to be three main levels for intervention: personal, job or work environment, and wider organisation. There are also three main areas to always take into account together: health conditions, absenteeism and presenteeism.

Ultimately, presenteeism is a difficult choice for employees; to turn up to work when ill, or to stay home and be recorded absent. They should not have to make that choice alone, or be subjected to unfair, irresponsible treatment as a result.

Dr Thomas Calvard is a lecturer in HR management and organisation studies at the University of Edinburgh Business School

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