Absenteeism vs. presenteeism – which is worse for the remaining staff?

Mike Davis, head of SME at AXA PPP healthcare

When someone is absent from work, the remaining staff may take on the extra load. But when they come in to work sick, everyone is at risk of catching a cold – which is worse? It will not come as a surprise to any business owners that an employee’s absence from work can be a disruption.

According to a report by ERS Research and Consultancy, sickness absence costs UK businesses an estimated £29bn annually with the average worker taking 6.6 days off each year. It can cause a range of problems: work doesn’t get done or remaining employees can get over-worked, there can be a drop-off in productivity, things can fall through the cracks.

Despite the severity of the problem, only 91% of firms track staff absences, with 39% logging them on paper or in a spreadsheet, leaving it open to human error, according research commissioned by HR and payroll specialist Moorepay.

This means businesses are failing to track the true picture of absenteeism. In addition, absences due to training, compassionate leave, medical appointments, sabbaticals and duvet days are only reviewed by 55%, 51%, 50%, 28% and 20% respectively.

Presenteeism isn’t any better

Meanwhile, presenteeism can be almost as bad. This is when an employee comes in to work despite being too ill to be productive – this often goes hand in hand with high-pressure workplaces where employees are stressed and feel obligated to come in. More than three-in-ten organisations reported an increase in people coming in to work ill in the past 12 months, according to ERS.

Those who had noticed an increase in presenteeism are nearly twice as likely to report an increase in stress-related absence than those who hadn’t (64% versus 35%). Presenteeism is also much more likely to happen when workloads are piled high or if job security is threatened and can be cut down with improved management practices.

This can be bad news for the remaining employees as well – even though they may not be asked to take on an extra share of the workload. Working in close conditions can mean your office becomes a petri dish for disease if the illness is contagious – before you know if, half you staff could be struck ill.

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To make matters worse, presenteeism denies the employee time to recover, meaning the period of ill-health is generally stretched out. Working conditions can even exacerbate illnesses; according to research from Fellowes, UK employees are regularly suffering from backache (34%), neck ache (25%) and headaches (23%) as a direct result of how they are working.

Productivity takes a hit

Overall, due to ill health, it is estimated that UK employers are losing 27.5 days of productive work per employee each health, according to research from Britain’s Healthiest Workplace (BHW).  As with anything, prevention is better than cure, and many bosses are often unaware of the early warning signs of stress in their team with the result that the first they hear about it is when they get a doctor’s note signing the individual off work with a stress-related condition.

  • Paying attention to the behaviour of the individuals in your team can help you ‘nip things in the bud’ before they develop too far.
  • The following are some of the early warning behavioural signs that may indicate problems:
  • Loss of motivation or commitment to the job
  • Poor timekeeping or attendance record
  • Presenteeism – working extra-long hours but with no significant effect on performance
  • Uncharacteristic displays of emotion such as angry outbursts or crying
  • Withdrawal from general social contact at work – isolating self
  • Increase in poor decision making or mistakes
  • Avoidance – of either you or of additional work or responsibility
  • Forgetfulness
  • Missing deadlines or poor planning or work

The main point is to be observant of any changes to people’s behaviour. For example, one individual may normally be prone to occasional irritable outbursts when under pressure however if this individual starts becoming increasingly quiet and withdrawn then this indicates a change to their usual behaviour and would warrant investigation.

For more information on employee wellbeing, visit AXA PPP healthcare’s Small Business Insight Centre

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