By Annie Hayes, HRZone Editor
The latest government attempt to cull soaring absence levels will see public sector workers’ pay docked if a medical certificate is not produced by the fifth day of absence; Editor’s Comment looks at the rise of ‘presenteeism’ and examines the dangers of dragging the genuinely sick into work.
A google search on ‘absenteeism’ produces a flurry of entries and indeed it is a permanent fixture in any people-management book worth its salt. Less, however, has been written on the notions of ‘presenteeism’.
Some research has led me to find that the term found its way to Britain from across the pond and on reflection it seems only fitting that the concept was derived in the United States a nation that insists on surviving on a measly two weeks holiday per year.
Thus ‘presenteeism’ is the illness of the workaholic and the folly of middle-managers who can’t quite accept that the business won’t collapse if they’re sick for a day. Quite simply it’s about turning up for work stricken with illness when you are genuinely ill.
This year we have seen a number of high-profile and leading organisations driven to draconian measures in order to beat the cheats.
The Royal Mail and British Airways have both introduced attendance bonus schemes.
Attendance levels at Royal Mail have certainly risen to levels that require addressing. The organisation reports that as many as 10,000 Royal Mail staff are off work at any one time that is 6.5% of the operational workforce.
A spokesperson told HRZone: “The aim of the scheme is to reward good attendance by our employees. This is an incentive scheme to show our people how much we appreciate good attendance.”
Royal Mail staff with exemplary attendance records are also rewarded with the chance of winning one of 12 weekend breaks. For staff who do not take any sick leave for a period of six months, a Ford Focus worth £12,000 could be theirs.
British Airways have also jumped on the attendance bandwagon. They are implementing a staggered attendance, incentive scheme as follows:
- £200 for staff with no more than four days absence between 1 October 2004 and 31 March 2005
- £400 for staff with no more than six days absence between 1 April 2005 and 31 December 2005
- £400 for staff with no more than six days absence between 1 January 2006 and 30 September 2006
- £1000 for staff with no more than 16 days absence between October 2004 and September 2006
The move comes in light of absence figures which show that BA staff are off sick for an average 17 days per year while the UK average is around seven days per annum.
While these schemes are somewhat generous and actually ‘reward’ staff for turning up – others have gone the other way and are using salary penalties as a measure for curbing workers who are planning on throwing a sickie while in good health.
The Department for Work and Pensions is one such example. A recent report has unveiled the cost of its absence problem to be £100 million a year. Average sickness per member of staff is ten days a year, this compares with a private sector average of 7.8 days. Under the new scheme pay will be stopped on the fifth day of absence if an employee fails to produce a medical note.
At Tesco’s a similar approach is already under way. Supermarket workers are automatically docked for the first three days of absence while at removal firm Pickfords workers now have to explain themselves to a trained AHP (specialist healthcare company) nurse rather than the boss. Like Tesco, workers at the firm are not paid for short-term absence.
Indeed the cost of dubious ‘sickness’ whereby workers throw a ‘sickie’ when they are actually in good health is a real concern for business.
The Confederation of British Industry have put a price tag on the problem of 25 million working days a year. The organisation to date, has however, failed to conduct any surveys on the costs associated with presenteeism.
While these schemes can only help to stamp out workers who are pulling a fast one, those that are genuinely ill can suffer.
A ten year study of 10,000 Whitehall workers conducted by University College London has revealed that staff who struggle into work could be putting their health at risk.
Professor Sir Michael Marmot, the head of the study commented: “Among 30 to 40 per cent of the population, we have found that those who were unwell but took no absence at all from work had double the incidence of coronary heart disease over the following years.”
The fear of letting the family down if pay is docked for short-term absence is putting a strain on some employees particularly those on lower incomes to make it into work when they are not well enough to do so.
Advances in technology are also hindering our recovery. For workers who use a computer, access to email and the internet from home can mean that employers expect you to ‘log on’ even if you are sick and have stayed at home. The stress can be too much for some.
Clearly a balance needs to be achieved so that those who are genuinely ill can rest and get better without fear of losing precious wages while those who are tempted to throw a sickie for the sake of having a day off are discouraged from doing so.
A further problem for workers is that representative bodies aren’t on top of the issues of presenteeism. The Health and Safety Executive told me it wasn’t an issue they were prepared to comment on. While the Institute of Directors were equally reluctant in coming forward with their views and admitted they weren’t even sure what the term meant.
Working while sick can pose a danger to others and for those who work with machinery the results can be fatal but while workers are penalised for taking short spells of absence the issues associated with ‘presenteeism’ will continue to grow. The folly of it could mean an early grave for us all.