Long reads

Britain’s presenteeism crisis

24 May 2018 By Emily Burt

The number of people working while ill has tripled since 2010 – and managers must be equipped with the emotional intelligence to cope, says the CIPD

Line managers might possess all the technical skills and qualifications under the sun – but without the emotional intelligence to care for the wellbeing of their employees, they will be helpless in the face of the UK’s presenteeism epidemic. 

That’s the verdict of experts reacting to the 2018 Health and Well-being at Work survey by the CIPD and Simplyhealth. The number of organisations witnessing staff working while ill has more than tripled since 2010, according to the figures, suggesting a major wellbeing crisis may be brewing. 

Almost nine in 10 (86 per cent) of the 1,000-plus HR and L&D professionals who responded to the survey said they had observed presenteeism – where employees carry on working rather than taking time off to recover – in their company in 2017, compared with 72 per cent in 2016 and only 26 per cent in 2010. 

Rachel Suff, senior employment relations adviser at the CIPD, says the report highlights the “endemic” nature of people coming into work despite suffering from illness. 

“We had expected presenteeism to fall off with the end of the economic recession, because job insecurity can be a real driver for turning up to work when you shouldn’t be there, but it has only increased with time, so we can’t blame that any more,” she says. 

And while fewer people pulling ‘sickies’ could be viewed as a positive development, Professor Sir Cary Cooper, president of the CIPD and professor of organisational psychology and health at the University of Manchester, stresses that unwell individuals coming to work is ultimately bad for the organisation. 

“There might be managers who say having greater numbers of staff in the office is good – but that’s a terrible way of looking at this,” he says. “Research on presenteeism shows that even if you are in the office you are not delivering any added value to the organisation, because your productivity is so low.”

Advances in technology can have both negative and positive effects on employee wellbeing, according to the survey. For instance, almost nine in 10 (87 per cent) said an inability to switch off from work outside working hours was the most negative impact of technology, highlighting the ‘always on’ culture of the modern workplace. 

The survey also found that workers are using their annual leave to complete backlogged tasks – a growing problem dubbed ‘leaveism’ – with more than two-thirds (69 per cent) of respondents witnessing this in their organisation over the last year. 

Cooper reports seeing this trend in previous public sector research: “A huge number of respondents said they took holiday because they could not finish their workloads during the working day. They don’t want their line manager to know they aren’t coping so they say they are going to Spain, and instead sit at home and do the backlog. This is happening in the public sector and is now extending into the private sector – it’s everywhere.” 

However, despite increasing awareness of work-related stress and the toll of mental ill-health, the number of organisations actively discouraging practices such as presenteeism has almost halved in the last two years. 

A quarter (25 per cent) of survey respondents who said they had witnessed presenteeism had also seen their company taking steps to combat it, such as sending unwell employees home, in 2017, compared to 48 per cent in 2016. Similarly, only 27 per cent of those who witnessed leaveism said their company was doing anything about it.

“The intentions are good, but the practical implementation is bad,” Cooper says. “It all comes back to the line managers – who should have the emotional intelligence to recognise that their employees are not coping, and make the delivery of more manageable workloads a priority.” 

A more important and longer-term corrective is for line managers to develop the emotional intelligence to support employee wellbeing. “There must be a more open conversation about what makes a good line manager, because without good emotional intelligence they will not notice that these people are not coping,” says Cooper. 

“This should also apply to the future of recruiting managers – stipulating that they not only possess the technical skills necessary for their jobs, but the necessary people skills. If they don’t have those skills, they should have to go through the training to equip them – or not get the job at all.”

However, delivering sustainable change must not be left solely to line managers, Suff adds. Rather than relying on HR to implement standalone health and wellbeing actions, positive behaviours must come from the leadership team. 

“Health and wellbeing initiatives or great benefits are not going to be the key influencer; there are stronger factors at play, like the amount of work employees face, the pressure of deadlines and the behaviours that leaders role model,” she says. 

“Changing those deeper organisational factors will be far more impactful on unhealthy behaviour than unsupported initiatives. 

“It’s great if organisations do have those initiatives, but they will only land in the right place with the right leadership and culture – and that means those at the top realising the benefits and using their influence to drive that change.”

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