May 30, 2024

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Present and sick: new study reveals 80% of British employees go to work when unwell

A new study conducted by Love Energy Savings has found that more than 80% of British employees still continue to work when they are ill.

Love Energy Savings investigated which groups were most likely to continue to work when ill and discovered some shocking results, with less than one-fifth of British workers (17%) admitting to taking sick days when they’re ill.

And there is a widening margin when it comes to age groups.

Young people are the most likely to come to work when they’re sick, as a staggering 92% of 18 to 24-year-olds admit to working when ill. In contrast, we can see that it’s more common for workers to take time off work when they’re sick as they get older, with numbers dropping to 84% for 25 to 34-year-olds and 80% for 35 to 44-year-olds.

Below we discuss the symptoms that cause presenteeism, the problems that it can cause in the workplace and what businesses can do to help employees take the time they need away from their desks.

What are businesses doing to combat presenteeism?

Presenteeism, or working when ill, is an issue that the UK has been dealing with for years. The Office of National Statistics found in their latest report that in 2017, the UK had the lowest sickness absence rate on record, with almost twice as many people taking sick days in 1993. Unfortunately, this is not due to a healthier workforce but fewer employees taking sick leave.

4 out of 5 private sector organisations have observed presenteeism in the last year and one-quarter report it has increased during this time period. Despite this, only one-third of private sector companies and less than a quarter (23%) of the public sector organisations are taking action to combat it.

‘Leaveism’ – staff using their holiday days when ill – is another problem, with 35% of organisations reporting that employees use annual leave when unwell. Again, only 27% of organisations across public and private sectors have taken steps to address the issues.

What is causing workers to deny themselves sick days?

From their survey results, Love Energy Savings found that the number one cause for presenteeism is that workers don’t want to let their team down (21%).

For many industries, if an employee is absent from work, for any reason, it’s up to the rest of the team to pick up the slack. Even when an absence is wholly justified, nobody wants to feel as though they are putting more pressure on their colleagues by increasing their workload.

But it’s not just a sense of camaraderie that puts people off calling in sick. 10% of people said they worked while ill because of pressure from an employer. Whether it’s the fear of being unwarrantedly lumped into the ‘pulling a sickie’ pile or simply having an unreasonable boss, British workers feel like pressure from their superior forces them to grin and bear it.

Other causes of presenteeism include:

  • A lack of sick pay
  • Overwhelming workload
  • Fear of losing their job
  • To save on sick days
  • A sense of job security
  • Loyalty to the company
  • Financial worries
  • Struggles with mental health such as depression or anxiety

What can managers do to put an end to presenteeism?

All employers have a duty of care for their staff, which means that if your team are turning up for work sick, it’s up to you to set things straight. Here are some small steps you can take to help your employees take the time they need to fully recover when suffering from illness.

1. Address the issue

As feeling pressured is one of the most common issues that leads to presenteeism, putting your employees’ minds at ease is a simple action that could have far-reaching consequences.

Employees will feel less nervous to take time off work if you can convey a level of trust with them, meaning they’ll ensure they’re fit and ready to return to work and you know that your team aren’t abusing your faith in their honesty.

By creating a company-wide sickness policy for staff, your employees will feel confident enough to take time off when ill, while also protecting the company from excessive absences.

2. Lead by example

It’s all well and good to preach a culture of self-care, but if your employees see you slaving away behind your desk when you should be wrapped up in bed, they’ll never feel confident enough to take a sick day themselves.

All the reasons your staff shouldn’t work when ill apply to you as well. If you care about their wellbeing, you won’t come into the office and make them sick too.

3. Send staff home

This isn’t an invitation to punish your employees that are too nervous to call in sick or don’t want to let the business down: you should be comfortable enough to send staff home when they are clearly too ill to work.

By simply explaining that they need to look after themselves and shouldn’t push themselves too hard could be the push they need to take their illnesses seriously.

4. Create a healthy environment

There are some troupers who’d rather battle through their incessant nose blowing than let their team team down. And while their dedication is commendable, the reality is that they will be spreading those germs throughout the office, which could have a greater impact on productivity in the long run.

In addition to having a robust sickness policy and options to send staff home when unwell, make sure you protect your team during those months when illness is rife. Placing things like tissue boxes, bins and hand sanitisers around the office are great for trapping germs and protecting your team’s health.

5. Think about a culture change

As a manager, there’s little you can do about flu or bugs from spreading across your workforce. What you can do, however, is to ensure that your company culture isn’t causing your staff to get ill. Stress and anxiety are extremely common causes of illness and can cause a common cold to develop into something much worse.

If you suspect that this is the case in your business, re-evaluate your employees’ workloads and how you can alleviate some of the pressure. Think about extending some deadlines or spreading out the burden of work across your employees more evenly to lighten the load.

Illness is something that we all have to deal with,” says People Manager, Karen Ball from Love Energy Savings. “It’s only natural to get sick and isn’t something anyone should feel guilty about”.

The problems start when employees feel like they can’t take time off to recover and end up burning out. It’s vital to make sure your staff aren’t intimidated into working when they shouldn’t be and are comfortable enough to give themselves a necessary break. By promoting self-care in the workplace, you’ll help your employees understand that it’s okay to take a sick day.