The practice of being present at one's place of work for more hours than is required, especially as a manifestation of insecurity about one's job.

Source: Oxford University Press

Presenteeism is very much a factor in the UK workplace. This was evident in recent research, conducted by Canada Life Group Insurance, which found that rather than miss work almost half of UK employees would turn up sick with a stomach bug or flu – despite the risk of spreading illness to their colleagues.

When the researchers enquired as to why UK employees would go to work sick, the respondents claimed that workplace culture was amongst their biggest reasons. The study found employees were worried that their employers would consider them weak (17%), lazy (14%) or undedicated (13%). More than a third also said that workload was a factor in their decision.

Presenteeism is such an influence in the UK that nine in ten of us have gone into work when ill. We do this even though we know we’ll be unable to give our best. It’s also unlikely that our company will gain any real productivity benefits as a result. And, if we do end up spreading illness the opposite will probably be true.

It’s often argued that working long hours generally doesn’t improve productivity either. For example, statistics from the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) show that on average people in Greece work around 600 more hours a year than the working population of Germany – yet German productivity is about 70% higher. 

If by working long hours, your employees are becoming tired and stressed, then there is a strong likelihood that it will ultimately hit workforce morale. Even worse it could create potential health problems leading to some employees going on long-term sick leave. 

Creating a healthy and productive culture

If organisations want to improve productivity, then there is plenty of evidence to suggest that keeping your workforce healthy and happy is a better strategic approach. To encourage this, there are a couple of steps that companies can take which will help prevent presenteeism becoming a problem and address health issues generally.

i) Monitor working hours

Businesses can deploy tools that will alert HR to excessive overtime, or when employees are not taking holidays. This can be a major problem. In Japan, where overwork has become a national issue, over a fifth (22.7%) of companies claim staff log more than 80 hours of overtime each month and employees use less than half of their annual leave. As modes of work continue to change, it’s becoming increasingly important that companies can monitor hours worked in the UK.

For instance, flexible working has created a culture where employees can end up working much longer hours – with colleagues emailing each other late at night. In fact, legislation was introduced in France earlier this year with the intention of reducing this behaviour.

There is also growing political and legal pressure on companies to take greater responsibility for the well-being of the 1.1 million people working in the UK’s gig economy. By monitoring when remote employees login and out of work, companies can gain a much better understanding of working patterns and spot concerning behaviour.   

ii) Spot an issue before it becomes a problem

Ideally, organisations will already have a culture where their employees are prepared to flag up problems related to workload or health, but this is not always the case. Recent research by YouGov has found that only half (53%) feel comfortable talking about mental health problems at work.

Although, where employees are unlikely to disclose problems, it’s possible for businesses to identify patterns of behaviour which may indicate they exist – such as regular lateness or absences. By spotting these signs early, HR teams and managers can take steps to understand the problem and take appropriate action.

We all want to work in high achieving organisations, but it’s important that we appreciate success isn’t necessarily tied to employees working long hours – especially if they become sick and tired. You’re more likely to nurture a high performing workforce if employees are happy and motivated. And, if you’re able to create a culture that ensures the latter, your business will feel the benefits in the long term.