Nearly three-quarters of leaders have witnessed presenteeism, poll reveals

Modern pressure to be busy at all times both personally and professionally is to blame for employees working through poor health, according to experts

The majority of UK business leaders have witnessed presenteeism at their workplaces in the last year, a survey has shown. 

Nearly three-quarters (71 per cent) of senior managers polled by recruitment firm Robert Half said they saw people come into work when they were ill, risking a delay to their own recovery or, in some cases, infecting other colleagues.

The majority of respondents (71 per cent) said instances of presenteeism increased during winter months, while nearly two-thirds (62 per cent) cited the school holidays as another time when presenteeism became more common.

Over half of leaders polled said presenteeism increased during periods of stress or workplace change (56 per cent and 54 per cent respectively).

Kelly Feehan, service director at the Chartered Accountants Benevolent Association (CABA), said levels of presenteeism had risen due to modern societal pressures. “People have the tendency to believe that to achieve personal success and happiness they need to be busy at all times – often at the expense of their health and relationships,” she said.

“Sometimes referred to as ‘hustle porn’, this toxic mentality has a profound impact on our physical and mental health, to the detriment of both the employee and employer,” she added.

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Feehan urged employers, especially those in industries where long working hours and tight deadlines were the norm, to set clear boundaries when it comes to workloads, overtime and checking emails when away from the office.

To combat the problem, 45 per cent of business leaders said they offered flexible working options, while nearly a third (32 per cent) said they actively monitored workloads, and a fifth (20 per cent) offered mental health support.

However, Rachel Suff, senior employment relations adviser at the CIPD, said her organisation’s research showed companies “aren’t doing enough to stop this practice, even when they observe it”.

Suff said: “[It is] really important employers take a proactive approach to health and wellbeing, and understand the underlying factors that could be driving unhealthy working practices like presenteeism, such as unmanageable workloads or targets.” She added senior leaders needed to act as role models by not going into work themselves when unwell.

The research found some regional variation in levels of presenteeism. London was the worst affected area, with 83 per cent of leaders witnessing instances in the past year. The north of England recorded the lowest levels. But even so, 62 per cent of respondents still reported instances of presenteeism in this region.

Matt Weston, managing director of Robert Half UK, described presenteeism as “an invisible burden on business productivity”, and added it presented “a serious issue for employers and employees alike”. 

Presenteeism is “often linked to workplace culture and how employees believe they would be perceived if they were to take a day off for illness,” Weston said. He recommended focusing on employee wellness to improve cultures that encourage presenteeism, noting that “ensuring every employee knows the company leave policy, and debunking any perceptions that this leave shouldn’t be taken, is a good place to start”.

Jane van Zyl, chief executive of charity Working Families, said flexible working initiatives could go a long way to combatting presenteeism, but added changes in policy “aren’t enough”.

“The senior leadership of an organisation needs to support workplace culture change through their actions. This could be through working flexibly themselves, taking family leave, or... taking sick leave when they are unwell,” said van Zyl. “When senior leadership walks the walk, employees will feel the company is truly behind their family friendly and flexible policies.”