UK employers lost £36 billion last year due to employee absence.

Sounds a lot?

Not if we look at the other side of the coin.

The cost of lower than normal productivity caused by employees showing up for work when they are not feeling 100% could be up to three times higher than absenteeism’s costs!

Coming to work when not feeling well has its own name – presenteeism.

The term refers to lost productivity and performance due to employees showing up at work but not working at full capacity because of sickness, other medical conditions, or distraction caused by personal issues i.e. caring for a sick relative, financial or marital problems.

The presence of unwell employees can have many negative impacts including work-related accidents, equipment breakage, absences related to family-work life balance, errors in judgment, conflicts and interpersonal problems.

Staff who work when struggling with illness, if contagious, also increase the risk of passing it on to their colleagues.

If the employer doesn’t pay for sick days, being absent from work due to illness or personal reasons could have a high financial risk for employees. An employee may, therefore, be forced to come to work when sick and infect others which may lead to further presenteeism and/or absenteeism.

Legal & General has found that presenteeism can cost employers three times more than sickness absence and poor workforce wellbeing accounts for more than a quarter reduction in productivity.

The company undertook a pilot project to improve the health and wellbeing of its staff and to understand the cost of poor employee health, including presenteeism, on the business.

Results revealed that the impact of suboptimal health of employees health led to a 14% loss in productivity.

The research has also exposed the productivity lost through “presenteeism” – those at work but impaired by their health – was up to three times higher than the reported absenteeism rate of 4%. These two factors combined together showed that poor employee health accounted for a 26% drop in productivity by working staff.

On this basis Legal and General calculated that presenteeism could cost a company with 600 employees even up to £2m per year.

According to another recent study commissioned by O2, more than a quarter of employees believe that the interpretation of their performance is based solely on how much time they spend in the office rather than their outputs.

So what deters us from taking time off?

Perhaps the fear of putting our job at risk, financial reasons, the notion that the work won’t get done in our absence, or the fear of letting our colleagues down?

Employees may also feel pressured to go to work when ill due to strict attendance policies, possibly resulting from abuse of the company’s sick pay system by colleagues who ‘chuck sickies’.

What can be done to help address presenteeism?

While combating presenteeism can be difficult, investments need to be made in the health of staff, so that employers can reduce presenteeism rates, boost productivity and, in the long term, generate an overall positive impact on business.

The introduction of sick leave and flexible working initiatives can be beneficial, particularly for employees who have a long-running medical condition or have responsibilities for the care of children or other sick relatives.

Flexi-work arrangements and working from home initiatives could be booked easily via web-based Time and Attendance, which enables employees to record their start and finish times, as well as allocate time to specific jobs/projects regardless of their location.

The system allows employees to request personal leave without having to speak to their manager directly, side-stepping any embarrassment that may be associated with a particular illness or personal issue.