I think you should be at home: Presenteeism and its consequences

Back in 2013, I had a really bad flu.

So what right? Everyone has the flu—big deal!

The reason that I recall the flu of 2013 is because I was still hard AT WORK when I felt like I might keel over. I remember my students looking at me and saying ‘sir, do you want us to call an ambulance?’ I laughed it off, but as I went from propping myself up on the desk to then almost lying flat, on the desk, I began to question this strange occurrence.

I took 2 days off, but I felt that I needed to be back sooner rather than later; I wanted to make sure that I did not fall behind, I also didn’t want to hit a trigger. To be honest, I wasn’t all that aware of the trigger mechanism at the time: I was so concerned that I did a good job, I paid no mind to triggers and their role in my working life. I returned early and taught my classes, still feeling ill and still struggling to be efficient—it was clearly an impossible task.

The real kick in the teeth came later (1 month later to be precise): I had hit a trigger! Now, during the year of 2013, I had been off for a total of 6 days; however, these 6 days were spread across 3 instances. The policy stated that a first stage trigger would be activated if hitting 3 instances of sickness in a calendar year and, let me tell you, I was fuming. I vowed from that point on to use an instance to its full, and to not return to work until completely well—well enough to do the job as efficiently as I had done before I went off sick. So let’s look at this weird thing called presenteeism to try and understand why it exists, what the dangers are, and what can be done to stop it.

What Is Presenteeism?

Simply put, it is about being at work when you really shouldn’t be. The example above is a clear example of it. If you feel ill, you will not be able to function. If you are not able to function then you will not be able to fulfil your duties, and, by being at work, it is actually taking you longer to recover and you will be inefficient for a longer period. What does this mean to a business? Money lost.

Being physically at work does not mean that you are present. Being physically fit means a lot more than just showing up. In the current climate, this also extends to mental fitness and being able to cope with the demands of work.

There is a lot of recent research and discussions in many Employer and HR publications that are pointing to Presenteeism having a significant impact on productivity. Having employees turning up to work where they are not to be fit at work due to illness, stress levels or other reasons could be costing your organisation more money than if they had taken the time off to fully recover and return to work fit and healthy.

A study by health insurer Vitality has found that more than 40% of employees said their work was being affected by health problems - a figure that's risen by a third over the last five years.

Days lost due to sickness absence is now at the lowest levels it has ever been-- just 2%, or 4.4 days, annually. We recognise that culturally, or as a society, we are in the midst of a huge mental health crisis; however, rates of sickness have remained constant, and sickness leave has gone down.

Research has shown that people are significantly less productive when they are unwell and that they can also be a hazard to others by passing on the illness, which results in a knock-on effect of reduced productivity. Those who are disengaged are more likely to be careless with their job role, making more mistakes than engaged employees. As well as this, a loss of morale can often be as infectious as a cold. If we look at this objectively, we are asking people to isolate to contain the spread of a virus to slow down its spread, we are forcing people to stay home if they contract it. Surely, if someone is ill and contagious, there should be no pressure exerted on this person (at all) to come into work, whether this be a cold, flu, Covid 19, or any other contagious illness. Maybe there is something to learn from this experience: an understanding that health and well-being must be a priority for all and what a business deems as an immediate and urgent need may require re-evaluation to establish the actual significance in the grand scheme. Taking a longer view will also highlight that Presenteeism is more expensive to a business than other health related issues.

What Can be Done

One solution to Presenteeism is to first ensure your work-place culture is as supportive as possible. Create an environment where people want to come to work and you will naturally reduce absence by decreasing stress and anxiety and looking closely at manageable workloads and deadlines. By being aware of the needs of your staff, you will then be able to better understand how to get the best out of them. Rational empathy can help you pick up on the reasons why people feel and do the things the way they do them and will make it easier for you to establish what strategy to put in place for that particular individual or group. Furthermore, for staff who are ill, you could invest in agile and flexible working. Say to your staff ‘if you’re not fit to work but are able to work, then do so from home.’ As we have seen recently, having a robust home working policy and technology to allow for effective homeworking is an investment worth making not just for these unprecedent times, but also in regular day-to-day working practices which focus on getting the most out of staff while also giving them the opportunity to rest and take some ownership over how they complete work. It is comparable in some respects to the university student who has ownership of their studies. Input results in output; however, where and when that input takes place is not key. Achieving a result by deadline is.

Bertrand Russell, in his essay In Praise of Idleness, argued that we no longer look at doing nothing as something. Really, we are programmed to always be doing ‘something’. He deems this change in view being brought about by the way we look at work and our specific vocations. We see work as virtuous in itself and this means that we place an inordinate level of importance and value upon it. The result is that a person directly situates their personal worth to the virtue of work. Now, the job is not just a part, it soon threatens to become the whole. Even if you love your job this is not a healthy position to be in and could be a contributing factor to some of the occurrences of presenteeism that occur. Taking time to do what you want, rather than what the business wants of you and making you believe that their needs are your needs, is imperative to a healthy mind and body. Doing nothing does not necessarily mean doing nothing. It means doing what gives you the opportunity to preserve yourself. This could be watching a film, a Netflix series, going for a drive, reading, writing for pleasure, sewing. The activity is not for capital gain but for personal gain and that is imperative to getting the most out of any work that you do. Workplaces that offer the flexibility for their workers to access leisure, will receive the pleasure of profit and, in the long run, happy and healthy staff that truly understand the benefits of creativity and the act of doing something that is not fuelled by an end goal to reach something. It is an act for the sake of the act in and of itself.

Something else many of us have learned recently is what is truly important in our lives and how much focus we place on time and the need to get things done. Recently, while paying for petrol, unbeknownst to me, I moved in front of a man who I wasn’t sure was in the queue or not. When standing in front of him, I realised that I had cut the queue. I turned to him and admitted to my mistake and invited him to go in front of me. His response was to refuse my multiple requests to take my place in the queue with a smile, a chuckle, and the following words: ‘It’s alright mate, I’m in no rush’

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