What is presenteeism?
86% of people have observed 'presenteeism', the practice of going into work when unwell, according to a survey carried out by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). The same survey revealed that although 48% of organisations put measures in place to counteract presenteeism in 2016, only 25% of organisations had similar measures in 2018.
The CIPD write in their survey report: "Year on year, our survey findings are showing a rising culture of 'presenteeism' in UK workplaces. This means more people coming into work when they are unwell, which is not the sign of a healthy workplace...potentially [being] more harmful for individuals and organisations than sickness absence...it's vital that HR professionals get to grips with the underlying reasons why people feel the need to work when ill."
Presenteeism is one side of the coin, however. 'Leaveism' is something that employers should also be aware of.
What is leaveism?
Leaveism, as defined by Hesketh and Cooper (2013) involves:
- Staff using annual leave when they are, in fact, unwell
- Staff taking work home that cannot be completed within contracted working hours
- Staff working while on leave or holiday to catch up
They add that "traditional sickness absence [used as an] indicator for performance management does not present a full and an accurate picture of the overall wellbeing of the workforce". On this, the CIPD comment that if both presenteeism and leaveism are evident in an organisation, "these are likely to be signs of underlying organisational issues affecting people's health and well-being".
69% of people have observed leaveism in their organisation, and much like measures against presenteeism in 2018, only 27% of organisations are believed to be responding to and implementing policies against leaveism. Perhaps most damning of all was the CIPD finding that 58% of organisations are failing to meet basic legal requirements for reducing stress in the workplace.
The impact of presenteeism and leaveism
Beyond the financial cost (believed to be more than $150 billion a year in the US alone), the cost of presenteeism in terms of employee health and wellbeing are as follows:
- Without rest, employees may worsen their symptoms by coming into work and adopting a "business as usual" mindset
- When ill, employees will be unable to perform at their best, sacrificing the care and attention to detail you have come to expect from them
- Jobs requiring the operation of heavy machinery or dangerous materials become even more dangerous in the hands of an employee feeling less than 100%
- Naturally, bringing illness into work increases the risk of germs spreading throughout your workplace
The impact of leaveism on employee health and wellbeing are in some ways similar to the impact of presenteeism:
- A risk of symptoms worsening by refusing to rest and continue working as usual
- Illness of any kind hinders an employee's ability to work at their best
Of course, by its very nature – leaveism does not put the wider workforce at risk of contracting the singular illness, as the employee is not coming in and increasing the risk of spreading their germs. Further, an employee working from home obviously isn't going to be operating heavy machinery or handling dangerous materials.
Combating presenteeism and leaveism
The most common steps taken to discourage presenteeism, according to the CIPD survey referenced earlier:
- Being more proactive in sending people home who are unwell
- Providing clearer guidance on how sick days work, and the symptoms it is appropriate to stay home from work with
- Training line managers to spot the warning signs of presenteeism
- Leaders not working when ill themselves
- Carrying out investigations into the root causes of presenteeism in your workplace
- Reviewing health and wellbeing policies to make sure they aren't overly punitive towards ill health
And the steps generally taken to discourage leaveism are as follows:
- Providing clearer guidance on how sick days work, and what is and isn't expected of employees when they are off sick
- Investigating the root causes of leaveism in the workplace, for example unsustainable or unrealistic workloads
- Training line managers to spot the warning signs of leaveism
- Leaders not responding to or chasing emails when on annual leave
- Reviewing how readily employees can switch off from digital technology, email and remote working when on annual leave
- Cultivating a culture based on output, not input