Tackling the counterproductive culture of presenteeism

Most of us are guilty of forcing ourselves to work when we aren’t feeling great if only to stop the never-ending to-do list expanding even more. However, countless studies have shown that going into the workplace when you’re not feeling great is actually the worst thing you can do – and now, in the days of COVID, going to work when you’re not feeling well could actually cost lives

At the start of lockdown the novelty of working from home was felt across all sectors. No commute, no filler-chat in the office, no mass tea trips and, for a brave few, no trousers, as Zoom calls only required keeping up appearances from the waist up! 

But as days became weeks, and weeks became months, the novelty has started to fade. Rolling out of bed five minutes before you start, your day is no longer as satisfying, and the technical issues experienced during virtual meetings have become tedious. 

So the thought of going back to the office, for some, is a welcome one – but, the workplaces we return to may look somewhat different from how they looked before the world was turned upside down back in March. As well as social distancing, and additional cleanliness, another thing that absolutely must change is the culture of presenteeism.

‘Presenteeism’ describes the situation when someone is at work but not really all there – they aren’t 100% and are often feeling a bit unwell. Now, more than ever, it is important that staff don’t come into work if they are feeling unwell in order to prevent the spread of COVID. Although the virus has similar symptoms to other illnesses – such as the common cold or the ‘flu – it is imperative that employees who are feeling unwell, but who might not think it is COVID, do NOT come in to work.

Presenteeism – on the rise?

With the threat of recession and job losses looming, presenteeism is likely to rise as people try to prove their worth to their employers. We live in a society which values productivity above all else and where jobs are harder to come by than they were in the past, which means fears over job insecurity and appearing ‘lazy’ are contributing factors. However, presenteeism has been shown to be counterproductive in many studies and has been proven to actually have the opposite of the desired effect.

Presenteeism in the UK has more than tripled since 2010, with 86% of people observing it in the workplace last year compared to 26% just under a decade ago. This increase is worrying as studies have shown that it has a negative impact on both mental and physical health as well as productivity.

A study by CIPD discovered that presenteeism led to an increase in reported mental health conditions – including stress, anxiety and depression – yet it is these conditions that are among the main causes of long-term sickness absence. Workers who rarely take time off to recover from an illness also risk developing burnout, a state of chronic stress that affects both physical and mental wellbeing.

When you aren’t well your body needs time to recover. You need to rest, drink plenty of water and avoid stress, which can further suppress your immune system. When you ‘soldier on’ through an illness it can linger for far longer than if you had taken a few days off – affecting your health and ability to work for weeks. You may also end up feeling worse in the long-run, forcing you to take more time off in the future.

Furthermore, when you’re feeling under the weather, it is difficult to focus on the task at hand. Cognitive thinking or motor skills are likely to be impaired whilst you’re ill, making high quality work impossible, despite your best intentions. 

A costly mistake

Research from Nottingham Business School, in 2017, found that the average UK employee spends almost two weeks a year working while ill – costing firms more than £4,000 per person due to low productivity. According to Vitality’s latest survey for Britains Healthiest Workplace, on average, 35 productive days are lost per worker each year because of presenteeism compared with just three as the result of absenteeism; these combined account for about 16 per cent of a full-time UK employee’s working days.

Therefore, as a leader in the workplace, you need to ensure that you are establishing a culture which discourages presenteeism and does not reward it. Make it clear to your team that you would rather they stayed home if they are ill, for their own wellbeing, and that of other team members, and to keep the standard of work high. 

Leading by example is a big part of creating a successful working environment – so if you feel unwell do not come in and let your team know why this is. Behaviour breeds behaviour, and the behaviors senior leaders display will influence the behaviour of those around them. 

So next time you wake up feeling groggy and sick, resist the urge to drag yourself into the office, stay at home and return to work only when you feel completely better.

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