Warnings about ‘culture of presenteeism’ as sickness absence reaches record low

More people are at work, but experts caution productivity has dropped

Experts are warning that presenteeism could be on the rise after official figures yesterday revealed sickness absence in the UK workforce had reached a record low 

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) data showed that workers took an average of 4.1 sickness absence days in 2017, compared to 7.2 days in 1993 when records began. Sickness absence has been on a downward trend since 1999. 

But Professor Sir Cary Cooper, president of the CIPD and professor of organisational psychology and health at the University of Manchester, warned the statistics could indicate employees were coming into work when they should be off recovering from illness.

“Although sickness absence is lower, presenteeism is on the increase,” said Cooper. “The concerns about job security from Brexit and the aftermath of the recession have led to people needing to show ‘face time’, worried that high absenteeism would lead to possible redundancy.”

Lynn Cahilanne, jobs expert at TotalJobs, said a “culture of presenteeism” has led to UK productivity being at an “all-time low”. 

“Worryingly this culture is being encouraged by employers, with 31 per cent of bosses saying that those who leave work on time are looked down on,” Cahilanne added. “It could be the same fear that is preventing workers from taking sick leave.”

Earlier this year, the 2018 Health and Well-being at Work survey, conducted by the CIPD and Simplyhealth, revealed that almost nine in ten (86 per cent) HR professionals had observed presenteeism in their organisation in the past year, compared with 72 per cent in 2016 and only 26 per cent in 2010. 

Rachel Suff, senior employment relations adviser at the CIPD, said she was concerned about the fall in the number of organisations taking steps to tackle presenteeism – “around a quarter [25 per cent] in 2018 compared with almost half [48 per cent] in 2016”. 

“When people are genuinely unwell, they will not be productive at work and organisations need to have an attendance management culture that supports people when they are ill and discourages unhealthy behaviour like presenteeism,” she added.

Susie Grey, talent team at EY, told People Management that employers must realise that having workers who are ill or return to work too early from illness was detrimental to businesses “because they might not be as productive, or even have to take more time off in the future to recover from illness.

“We try to tell our people that it is human nature to be ill at points in your life, and we come at it from an angle that it’s ok to be sick and take time to recover,” Grey added.

The ONS data also revealed that more than a quarter (26 per cent) of sickness absence days in 2017 were attributed to minor illnesses, such as coughs or colds. However, there has also been an increase in workers aged 25 to 34 citing mental health conditions as a reason for being off sick, rising from 7.2 per cent of absences in 2009 to 9.6 per cent in 2017. 

The ONS found that women were more likely to report mental health problems as their reason for sickness absence – 8.1 per cent of all absences reported by women compared to 5.7 per cent of those reported by men.  

Gillian Connor, head of policy partnerships at Mental Health UK, said there was “no reason” why employers should treat sickness absence due to mental illness any differently to physical illness.

“While we have seen that mental illness has received a lot of coverage in the media recently, workplace policy has been slow to keep up,” Connor said. “Not only is there significant stigma attributed to mental illness, it is also a hidden illness that is often poorly understood.”