- The blurred work-life boundaries sometimes caused by checking emails first thing in the morning, having video calls outside of working hours and working extra hours can lead to presenteeism, a loss of employee productivity and absenteeism.
- Employers may want to ensure proper policies are in place to effectively support their staff, as presenteeism can be difficult to detect in remote workers and it is harder to monitor sickness during virtual conversations.
- Employers should take accountability for employees’ welfare and be able to identify if they need to take time out, encouraging them to take time off when they are ill and not to return to work too soon.
According to HR software provider Breathe’s June 2022 research, part of its People first culture series, two-thirds (65%) of UK staff are less likely to take sick leave when working remotely, suggesting that presenteeism, which is where an employee works even when they are unwell, is a prevalent issue across the country. As the Covid-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic has resulted in a rise in remote working, staff who are not based in the workplace, and therefore are not as visible as those who are, can be tempted to work when they are not fully fit, making the situation more difficult for employers to manage.
The effect of the pandemic
The pandemic and lockdowns changed the world as we know it, with the virus continuing to exist, spread and impact society’s health and anxiety levels. Many employees have been working remotely or as part of a hybrid model for a considerable period.
The blurred work-life boundaries sometimes caused by checking emails first thing in the morning, having video calls outside of working hours and working extra hours can make it difficult to switch off from work, and can lead to presenteeism, a loss of employee productivity and absenteeism.
In order for employers to deal with this, it is critical to note that one size does not fit all when it comes to employees’ health and the psychological impact of Covid-19, says Arjan Toor, chief executive officer at Cigna Europe.
“As an employer, it is important to understand that it is not just the challenges of the workplace that employees need to cope with every day, it’s everything else too, from their finances and home life to their physical and mental health. All of these things impact employee stress levels, leaving them feeling burnt out and hindering their performance at work. Over time, the effects of stress can build up and contribute to sickness absence and presenteeism.”
There are cases where employees who have Covid-19 are choosing to work remotely, as they may have not been too badly affected and felt well enough to work from home. While this is a solution to avoid coming into the workplace, and although some employers will still insist that staff doso despite testing positive, it is an example of presenteeism. Sick pay and fear over job security can also play a part in employees working when they are unwell.
By organisations requesting that staff return to the workplace, sickness absence rates are rising due to individuals’ direct contact with others, says Adrian Lewis, director at Activ People HR. “Trust remains key in the employee-manager relationship, with organisations benefiting greatly from employees knowing their wellbeing is at the heart of any concerns,” he says. “When unwell, if employees continue to work their health and wellbeing are at risk, as well as their productivity and motivation to deliver the required results.”
Communicating a sick leave policy
Creating an open culture can be a good place to start. Employers may want to ensure proper policies and management are in place to effectively support their staff, as presenteeism can be difficult to detect in remote workers and it is harder to monitor sickness during virtual conversations.
All employees should be fully aware of their organisation’s sick leave policies, especially if these include any special agreements regarding Covid-19. Regular communication will go a long way to ensure they know that their health is important and that if they are signed off sick when appropriate, they know they are not expected to work.
Good absence management systems are also vital, because these can be reviewed to look for trends in absence and whether these differ depending on location, job function, working environment or team, says Debra Clark, head of specialist consulting at Towergate Health and Protection.
“This can then help inform any specific health and wellbeing needs that need to be met,” she says. “Equally, if an employer has a caring culture with employees’ wellbeing featuring high on its agenda, this, in turn, helps them feel they can do their best work, as they are supported and they are subsequently more productive.”
Employers may want to consider training line managers on how to recognise presenteeism, with good communication an essential part of that, says Suzanne Marshall, head of clinical strategy at GoodShape. “Employers speaking to employees more regularly will help assess their health, so they can intervene early to offer support and prevent ill health from worsening,” she explains. “This level of contact between a member of staff and their manager is also likely to reduce misuse of a sickness policy. Organisations should also ensure that they have systems to collect both sickness absence data and information about the prevalence and impact of chronic illness.”
Employers should take accountability for employees’ welfare and be able to identify if they need to take time out, encouraging them to take time off when they are ill and not to return to work too soon.
One option is to visibly set boundaries around wellbeing, prioritising self-care and switching off at the end of the day. Jamie Styles, director of people and culture at Koa Health, says: “Not only is there a strong moral case for employers to look after staff health, but it makes good business sense, too. Healthy workplaces attract the best talent. They also avoid the negative impact of illness on productivity, measured in staff turnover, absenteeism and presenteeism. A workforce with stronger mental wellbeing is more likely to have stronger morale, greater productivity, and reduced burnout, sick leave and staff churn.”
A workplace wellbeing programme can go a long way in helping to support employees’ health. It should be well rounded, strategic and engaging in order to allow workers to know that their employer is tuned into their health requirements and is seeing their overall wellbeing as a priority.
“Employers should reflect on the pandemic crisis to take stock of, and refresh, their employee assistance programmes and other workplace benefits to ensure they are helping employees take care of themselves and their loved ones,” says Toor. “Enhancing programmes by implementing a simple and effective check-in culture to help ease employee stress levels is a good starting point. Virtual health services have increased in popularity since the beginning of Covid-19 and they can be offered by employers as a tool to support staff.”
When it comes to addressing presenteeism, keeping momentum to promote wellbeing programmes within the organisation can help keep everyone motivated and engaged no matter how they choose to work. Asking how people are feeling can be the first step to encourage wellbeing conversations.
It is important to empower employees to take responsibility for themselves and to know when to step back and seek help, says Elizabeth Spencer-Philips, founding and managing director at Caburn Hope. “Organisations can avoid presenteeism and people abusing sick leave policies by having a well-executed wellbeing programme in place that enables open and authentic conversations in the workplace and creating a culture of trust and empowerment for the wider team.”
Employers have a responsibility and duty of care to create a culture that helps their employees. To maintain a healthy and happy workforce when remote and hybrid working arrangements have become the new norm, and to avoid presenteeism as much as possible, employers may want to commit to making the health of their employees an important and immediate priority beginning at senior leadership level, Toor concludes. While there are many reasons why presenteeism is occurring among remote workers, putting the health of the workforce first is a good place to start to try and prevent it.