What HR thought it knew about presenteeism is ‘fundamentally flawed’, research suggests

Experts say re-evaluation is a ‘major breakthrough’ that will enable employers to better understand the issue

Credit: Getty images

Current attitudes toward presenteeism in the workplace are fundamentally flawed, new research has revealed, as a study finds not all instances of working whilst unwell are alike.

According to the study by Roberston Cooper, the data-driven health and wellness specialist, there are three unique types of working while ill.

Two of those are not necessarily undesirable for businesses, while only one should be classified as presenteeism and eliminated from businesses, it found.

In the report, Seeing Presenteeism Differently: Revealing the Good, the Bad and the Misunderstood, two categories come under its definition of ‘functional presence’:

  • Pragmatic presence - when people perform close to, or at their full capacity and at the same time recover at least to a certain degree from their health issue

  • Therapeutic presence - when people are performing well below their maximum productivity, yet gain some therapeutic benefit from being at work.

The report said that the final type is presenteeism - which is “dysfunctional”, helps no one and businesses should take steps to prevent it.

The report adds that organisations’ efforts to measure and monitor instances of employees working whilst unwell need to evolve to distinguish between functional and “true” presenteeism. 

“This re-evaluation of presenteeism is a breakthrough,” said Professor Sir Cary Cooper.

“It enables businesses to properly grasp presenteeism: what it is and isn’t, its real impact on workplace performance and what you can do to manage it more effectively.” 

He added that by "dispelling outdated notions", a new age of informed initiatives that maximise productivity and cultivate an employee health and wellness culture is opened up. 

According to Steve Herbert, wellbeing and benefits director at Partners&, the research confirms what most HR professionals already know, that the concept of presenteeism is “far more nuanced” than has been frequently suggested in recent years. 

“Certainly, there are those cases where the physical act of attending the workplace is likely to result in the cause of absence being worsened or prolonged.

“Likewise, an employee with an infectious illness, for instance flu or Covid, should be taken away from the workplace to protect colleagues and by extension the overall productivity of the workplace too,” said Herbert. 

He added that in the evolving flexible-working world, many employees from either group may be able to complete at least some of their daily tasks from home if they feel able. 

However, Herbert said that the problem for employers is determining how to set any parameters or procedures to guide employees towards the right solution.

He said each employee or illness is unique and what may be a “pragmatic solution for one employee could actively harm another’s recovery”.

As a result, HR professionals should try to develop a plan that allows the individual employee to take the lead in decision-making while being led by expert health guidance or occupational health support as needed, he said.

A separate CIPD study, published last month, found that 41 per cent of employers took steps to discourage presenteeism, compared with 53 per cent in the previous year.

The report said it suggests a drop-off in organisations paying proper attention to presenteeism.

According to Gemma Dale, lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University, it is important to be able to distinguish between different types of presenteeism, as the new research identifies not all types are “problematic. 

“Working whilst unwell might sound like it is something organisations should be worried about or working to prevent, but this might not be the case,” she said.

Dale said a good example is working from home, as there might be situations where someone could not go into an office but are very much able to work remotely.

As a result, she said businesses may need to think about “differentiating” between the two and guiding managers accordingly, with leaders carefully checking if someone wants to work remotely and that they are “truly fit to do so”.

The Robertson Cooper research, which used data collected from over 3,000 UK respondents, also showed that 60 per cent of employees have had an occurrence of presenteeism in the past three months. 

It also found that productivity typically drops by up to 40 per cent during any period of working whilst unwell, but how long it lasts determines the impact on overall productivity.

If it lasts for fewer than 5 days in any three months, the research said it is no more “detrimental” to overall productivity than absenteeism.