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How to combat the effect of presenteeism

Whilst many are familiar with the impact sickness absence has on businesses, especially smaller organisations, little information is provided about the effect of presenteeism.
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This, broadly speaking, is where workers attend work when they are not fit to do so – and effect of presenteeism on your business is harder than you may think.

According to Aviva’s Health Check UK Report, 69 per cent of workers gone into work feeling unwell. This is not surprising given that the Office for National Statistics report that fewer days were lost due to sickness last year than any other year on record, with only an equivalent of 4.3 days sickness absence per worker.

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Whilst it may seem as though declining absence numbers would be good for businesses, the effect of presenteeism can actually be more detrimental to productivity than sickness absence. Not only that, employers are under a duty to take care of the health and safety of their employees (which extends to their mental as well as physical health) and as such employers should take precautionary steps to ensure staff have a suitable working environment.

There are clearly going to be circumstances where employees are physically incapable of working but what of those that feel unwell and yet report for work? Admittedly the impact of sickness presence is hard to identify and measure but it is thought that it can actually have an adverse impact upon morale, lead to longer recovery times and actually add greater costs to businesses.

Given that Aviva’s survey found 43 per cent of workers felt business performance was put ahead of their health and wellbeing, and that those who reported for work when not fit did so for fear that their workloads would mount up in their absence, it is clear that more needs to be done to manage the effect of presenteeism.

Ideally employers should identify the reason behind each period of sickness absence (perhaps by conducting a return to work interview) and attempt to create a culture where employees are comfortable to have a day off when unwell. This could be as simple as ensuring that all absences are managed fairly and consistently across the workforce but may also need a critical review of the workplace as a whole.

Monitoring sickness absences and treating employees with sensitivity and respect is likely to create an environment where employees are willing to ask for help but it is also important to create strategies to ensure things are managed smoothly in the event of unexpected absence. This could include encouraging notification of sickness absence as soon as reasonably practicable to ensure suitable cover is in place and relaying this to the workforce so that they can be sure, if unwell and absent, that their work will be covered.

It could also include the implementation of a system which ensures that work is filed and actioned in a consistent way across the workforce, making it easier for others to evaluate what work needs to be completed in another’s absence. In summary, to combat the effect of presenteeism employers are advised to:

1) Review their sickness absence policies to ensure they are fit for purpose;
2) Ensure managers are trained to implement the policies correctly;
3) Train managers to identify and tackle workplace stress;
4) Ascertain and record the reason for the employee absence either by way of return to work interview or by keeping in touch with an absent employee;
5) Monitor absences to check for patterns;
6) Consider implementing a contractual sick pay scheme;
7) Consider whether any reasonable adjustments can be made to the employees working environment (whether or not they suffer with a disability);
8) Consider implementing employee benefits such as permanent health insurance; and
9) Ensure measures are in place to manage employee workloads in the event of unexpected absence.

If nothing else, employers are encouraged to put adequate procedures in place to manage sickness absence effectively as this ought to help reduce absence rates, lessen the impact of increasing workload on other staff and assist sick employees to ensure a successful return to work.

Domonique McRae is a solicitor in the employment team at SA Law

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