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How presenteeism can affect small businesses

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By Mike Davis, Head of SME Direct, AXA PPP healthcare

The most recent figures from the Office for National Statistics seem to suggest that sickness absence rates have fallen to the lowest levels on record. Figures show that employees took an average of 4.1 sickness days in 2017 compared to 7.2 days in 1993 [1]. There could be a number of different reasons for this drop, one being that it could be a result of an increase in presenteeism. 

Presenteeism occurs when employees attend work despite being unwell, either through issues with physical or mental health. While much attention is often paid to sickness absence rates within a business, small business owners may be unaware of the issue of presenteeism. According to a recent CIPD report, 86% of over 1,000 respondents said they had observed presenteeism in their organisation over the last 12 months, compared with 72% in 2017 and 26% in 2010 [2].

While it can be a common misconception among employees that their employer would prefer them to be present in the office than not, presenteeism could actually be costing businesses more than if they were absent from work. A Health at Work Economic Evidence Report revealed that, for every £1 cost to a business of absenteeism, there’s estimated to be an additional cost of £2.50 due to presenteeism [3].   

What could be causing presenteeism?

When looking for ways in which presenteeism can be reduced within a business, the first step should be to identify whether there are any potential wellbeing issues within the workplace. Then look into whether these could be leading to employees feeling that they aren’t able to take time off work when they’re unwell. These could include:

• Workloads. If a member of the team has an exceptionally high workload, they may feel that they can’t take any time off work when they’re unwell due to fear that they’ll fall behind on their responsibilities. However, this may have an adverse effect on the business as the productivity of the employee may suffer during this time as they aren’t able to fully concentrate on their work due to being unwell.

• Workplace stress. According to the Health and Safety Executive, stress, depression and anxiety accounted for 44% of work-related ill health cases in 2017/18 making it the biggest cause of work-related ill health [4]. When employees are feeling stressed at work, they may be less inclined to take sickness absence when they’re unwell, particularly if they have an important presentation coming up or are in the middle of a big project.

• Management behaviours. According to one study, over half (54.6%) of workers reported that their employer doesn’t send them home when they’ve been unwell [5]. If the management team are regularly ignoring the fact that employees are unwell when they’re at work, it could lead to employees feeling that they aren’t able to take time off when they’re sick. Equally, if managers are regularly coming into work despite being unwell, it could mean that the rest of the team copy the same behaviours as they may see it as the norm within the business.

• Job insecurity. When employees feel that their job isn’t secure and that they may face redundancy or dismissal, they may be more likely to attend work despite being unwell due to the fear of potential consequences of not being at work.

Can presenteeism be reduced?

Once the potential causes of presenteeism have been identified within a business, there are a number of steps that business owners can take to help reduce the risk of presenteeism occurring:

• Line managers are role models. Line managers have a big role to play when it comes to reducing presenteeism levels within the business. If they notice that one of their team is unwell at work, they should be encouraged to go home in order to rest and recuperate. If they do send one of their team home, they could remind them that they’re not expected to work until they feel better.

• Improving workplace culture. Workplace culture can have a big impact on the overall wellbeing of employees and the risk of presenteeism. A negative workplace culture that includes long hours, minimal breaks and working when on annual leave could lead to employees feeling like they can’t switch off from work. According to research by Perkbox, long working hours were the most common cause of workplace stress (21%) [6]. Discouraging these sorts of behaviours in both management and the rest of the team can help to improve workplace culture and therefore decrease the risk of presenteeism. Developing an employee benefits package that includes things such as private health insurance can also help to improve workplace culture by showing that you’re taking active steps towards improving the health and wellbeing of the team.

• Allowing employees to rest when they’re unwell. Employees should be encouraged to rest and recuperate when they’re unwell. One study revealed that over a third of employees admitted that managers often put pressure on them to return to work before they’re ready, with 52.9% of managers still contacting their employees whilst they’re off sick [4]. 

• Encouraging open dialogue. It’s important for small business owners to encourage a culture of open dialogue within their business. Employees should feel comfortable telling their manager when they’re struggling with workloads or are finding it difficult to cope with work pressures.  According to one report, just 11% of those who experienced a mental health issue as a result of work disclosed it to a line manager [7]. Early intervention and support from management can mean that work pressures such as high workloads and tight deadlines can be addressed early on, before they impact the wellbeing of employees.

AXA PPP healthcare cover

Our small business healthcare cover provides a range of benefits to help you look after your team. They’ll feel supported and reassured that they can get help when they need it most. We know that every business is different, that’s why we offer a range of cover options so you can choose the ones that best fit your business and your people. 

Click here for more information about our cover, including what we do and don’t cover or get a quote today.

Sources and references

1 Office for National Statistics, 2018.
2 CIPD, 2018.
3 Health at Work Economic Evidence Report, 2016.
4 Health and Safety Executive, 2018.
5 CV Library, 2016.
6 Perkbox, 2018.
7 Business in the Community Mental Health at Work Report, 2017.