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True Cost of Presenteeism

27 June 2012

True Cost of Presenteeism


In a period of ongoing recession, has an unwise focus on face-time caused absenteeism to be replaced by the more costly problem of presenteeism..?

Absenteeism is finally on the decrease, with data from the Office for National Statistics reporting that the average number of days lost through sickness has dropped significantly from seven days per individual to just four.

Unfortunately, it’s a hollow victory. The cost of presenteeism – when sick employees attend work but fail to perform - is on the increase, accounting for 1.5 times more working time lost as sickness absence, according to a study by The Work Foundation. And that’s before you take into account the cost of other types of presenteeism, generated by employees who attend work but lack either the motivation or skill required to add value.

Presenteeism indicates the ongoing effects of the recession, where employees feel the need to put in face-time and try to hit targets despite ill health, for fear of putting themselves at increased risk of redundancy otherwise. The trend highlights the extreme pressure most workforces are now under, with more than 40% of employees surveyed for The Work Foundation study reporting that they felt under pressure from managers and co-workers to come to work when ill.

As ever, the focus would appear to be on preventing the negative, limiting the number of days people take off sick or looking at what targets they haven’t hit, instead of encouraging the positive. In reality, to be truly effective, any wellbeing policy must go beyond just presenting absence and instead look towards enabling employees to be as effective and productive as possible. A key component of such a policy relates to allowing people to recharge and properly switch off from work, not just when they are sick but in the evenings and at the weekend.

As the marked increase in calls to our helplines from people who are at breaking point shows, employees and managers alike are putting unreasonable pressure on themselves, to the point where this is now becoming counter-productive.

Yes, we’ve all had days where we had to put in the extra hours and effort to hit that deadline or target. But with many businesses still struggling to survive, reducing headcount to cut costs or encouraging individuals to take on workloads previously carried by two or three people, many people are now working in a constant state of stress or anxiety. And the result? Not only are they becoming less productive, they’re also more susceptible to illness, as increased levels of cortisol, a key stress hormone, reduces their immunity.

Critical to stopping the trend is for everyone to step back and collectively prioritise what really needs to be achieved within each organisation. If restructuring activity has forced individuals to take on the workloads of several people, it’s simply not viable to expect them to operate under that level of increased pressure for a prolonged period of time. Instead, business priorities need to be agreed and roles re-defined to give people the opportunity to focus on what matters most, so that they can make a valuable contribution within the confines of the working day, instead of constantly staying late, attending while sick or taking work home with them.

At the same time, individuals themselves need to be encouraged to work in the most productive way possible. Ideally that means blocks of 120-150 minutes on a dedicated task, without interruption, followed by a break of 20 minutes to recharge and refresh themselves. Where employees are unable to concentrate on the task at hand because of intrusive worries and concerns about work or issues outside of work, they should be directed towards appropriate support, be this the EAP or associated debt, emotional counselling and legal helplines.

Once common principles across the workplace, the idea of taking a break, let alone a lunch break has somehow become synonymous with slacking off or not putting in the effort. This has created unhealthy, unproductive working environments, where people deny themselves the opportunity to recharge themselves, but instead end up becoming sluggish and ineffective, only to have to work longer to get the same amount done.

Only by focusing less on face-time and attendance and more on output and results can we identify which policies are truly most effective at supporting the ability of individuals to perform - and, by doing so, the performance of the business as a whole.