Presenteeism and productivity in the workplace

July 21 2021

Productivity of employees in the workplace is key to the success of any business and the level of that productivity is dependent on the continued good health and wellbeing of staff – but how do you know if your employees are happy and healthy?

Time off work through sickness can be measured and alert management to the possibility of underlying problems that may exist within the company which can be identified and acted upon, but how do you recognise the warning signs if the health and wellbeing of your staff is deteriorating yet they continue to turn up for work?

And how does that affect the productivity of your business?

A growing problem

We all know what absenteeism means but something we are becoming more aware of in the workplace is presenteeism – where staff are still going to work despite suffering with their health. 

Just because the employee is present it doesn’t mean they are doing a good and productive job – and it is much better to identify issues and solve them rather than let presenteeism continue!

A low rate of absence is usually a good sign for a business but could be masking what is really going on. There are a number of reasons why people continue to go to work when they are not in good health, including:

  • They can’t afford to take time off sick
  • Fear of losing their job
  • Loyalty to the company
  • They don’t wish to add to the workload of colleagues
  • Fear that it may affect career prospects
  • A feeling of being pressured into attending work whatever the circumstances

There are also many causes of poor workplace health and wellbeing, including:

  • Heavy workloads
  • A stressful environment
  • The culture of the company
  • Attitude and expectations of management

Expert insight

Professor Dame Carol Black, an expert advisor on health and work to NHS England and Public Health England, addressed the Society of Occupational Medicine earlier this year and said:

“People are often fixated by absence because it is easy to count. But, in fact, over the last I would say five or six years, there has been a rise in the number of people being at work but not really able to give it their best, perhaps because they are sick but don’t want to say so, or it may be that they are anxious or worried – it can be for a whole host of reasons – and people define it in different ways. 

“There is some evidence, particularly the data from Britain’s Healthiest Workplace survey, that poor mental health is probably the biggest driver of presenteeism.”

What can be done?

There is a need for greater awareness and being able to recognise the warning signs – a drop in productivity, visible symptoms of illness or exhaustion – by ensuring safeguards are in place to deal with the problem.

This may include instigating a wellbeing programme, adopting a more flexible position on absence, adequate support for staff on a return to work from sickness, regular meetings with employees, educating and training line managers and promoting good working practice.

Presenteeism can be just as harmful as absenteeism but with the correct approach and by adopting the right strategy both can be greatly reduced, which will benefit employer and employee.


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