Third of UK employees have worked while unwell since start of pandemic, study finds

Organisations urged to better tackle presenteeism, as research reveals a quarter of staff say workloads have prevented them from taking time off for illness

More than a third of employees have worked while unwell since the onset of the pandemic, research has found, fuelling calls for businesses to do more to tackle presenteeism.

A poll of 2,000 UK adults by Canada Life found 35 per cent said they had worked while unwell over the last 18 months, increasing to nearly half (46 per cent) among those aged 18 to 34.

Of those who admitted to working while unwell, half (50 per cent) said they did so because they felt their illness was not serious enough to take time off, and more than a quarter (27 per cent) said that the size of their workload prevented them from taking time off.

A quarter (24 per cent) reported that they worried about the financial implications of taking time off, while one in five (21 per cent) said they would have taken the time off if lockdown restrictions hadn’t applied.

The research, which was carried out in September, also revealed that a fifth (20 per cent) reported finding their working day to be more stressful than before.

Rachel Suff, senior policy advisor for employment relations, said that issues of presenteeism had been an increasing concern in the HR profession over the last year.

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“Boundaries between work and home life have become increasingly blurred since the beginning of the pandemic for many, including for those who are working from home,” she said, calling on organisations to do more to tackle ‘always on’ cultures.

“It’s crucial that employers address any issues that lead to people feeling they’re expected to work when ill or that it’s the only way to stay on top of their workload,” she said.

The research also found an increase in working hours for remote workers. More than a fifth (22 per cent) of those working from home reported working longer hours than before the pandemic.

The poll revealed that while men were more likely to report starting earlier than normal when working from home (24 per cent of men compared 19 per cent of women), women were more likely to report working later than normal (23 per cent of women compared to 18 per cent of men).

A third (32 per cent) of those working from home felt that there was a greater pressure to be ‘present’ at work. This figure rose for young people, with 37 per cent of those aged 18 to 34 reporting this, compared with 27 per cent of over-55s.

The problem was also more acute among women, 37 per cent of whom reported that they felt a need to be ‘present’ at work compared to 28 per cent of men.

Similarly, 20 per cent of remote workers reported that, since the pandemic, they had been checking their emails more regularly outside of working hours, while 14 per cent of respondents said that they felt pressure to attend every meeting, rising to 19 per cent for women.

Dan Crook, protection sales director at Canada Life, said that the change in routine brought on by the pandemic had led to a “drastic effect on how our work days are structured, and how work gets done”.

“We’ve had to get used to fewer interactions and less contact with our colleagues, alongside our increased use of technology. In some cases it has had a negative impact on mental health, causing higher levels of stress and an anxiousness to be ‘present’.”

Crook said that it was essential for employees to benefit from time off, and urged employers to facilitate this with targeted support such as group protection policies that include services such as GP access, mental health support and burnout prevention.

“It is through policies such as these, that employers can show that they are serious about the wellbeing of their workers, and in turn, encouraging employees to take care of their own wellbeing too,” he said.

“Equipping line managers with the right knowledge, skills and training to identify unhealthy working habits and to be able to best support their team is key.”