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Editor’s Comment: The folly of ‘presenteeism’


Annie Ward

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.

6 Responses

  1. Replacing paid sick pay with additional annual leave
    I’d be very interested to know how much additional paid ‘general’ leave staff received to replace the previous system of paid sick leave. We are considering various options to try and reduce absenteeism, particularly of the one-day ‘headache/food poisoning/sprained ankle’ variety, so I was very interested to read about firms which have ‘swapped’ sick pay for additional, general, leave. We currently offer sick pay of 3 weeks’ at full pay, 50% salary for a further 3 weeks and 1/3rd for a final 3 weeks within any tax year; I can’t imagine our management would approve an additional 3 weeks annual leave for everyone though.

  2. We tried it and it works
    It has been standard policy in the US for some time to offer employees a set number of paid days off a year and not ask them to split them into sick days and holidays. Despite initial concerns, this is generally very popular with staff. It has done away entirely with the resentment caused by certain workers who are thought by their coworkers (correctly or not) to be abusing the sick days system. And it treats employees as adults, not children who need to bring in “sick notes” from the doctor or Mum.

    The long-term disabled continue to need a separate set of laws. We should not confuse the need to stay home occasionally because of a cold, headache or backache with more serious health problems.

  3. Consider the impact of the DDA
    One thing that employers need to be very wary of when implementing attendance bonuses and other similar policies is the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Poor attendance may be for disability-related reason, in which case disabled employees may have a claim if they are being excluded from the possibility of getting an attendance bonus due to their disability.

    Policies and procedures need to be very carefully drafted to allow for this – my recommendation would be to take legal advice if you are considering introducing anything like the ones discussed above.

  4. Working when ill may cause long-term illness
    About 1% of the population suffer ME/Post Viral Fatigue at any given time, with about 2.5% suffering at some point in their lives. The consequences of this disease for individuals concerned can include loss of employment, resulting in financial problems, and relationship breakdowns – the cost to the nation is a not insignificant number of people unable to work and forced to live on benefits. No-one really understands what causes the condition, but theories include stress combined with a viral illness. I suspect there are many other conditions where pressurising people to work when ill makes them worse. Further, common sense suggests that ill people are more likely to make mistakes, as well as infecting colleagues. Therefore, I would plead with employers not to introduce silly schemes to either reward those who come to work when sick or punish people for taking necessary time of work when ill.

  5. spreading it around
    Particularly relevant to those working directly with clients in the health and social care sector, is that attendance when ill may jeopardise the health of others – some of whom may not have good health or be more susceptible to illness. This may sometimes be a good reason not to enforce attendance.

  6. Swapping sick leave entitlement
    Some time ago we adopted a policy of removing any right to sick pay and exchanging this for additional paid holiday. All staff agreed to this change and were, in fact, very happy. Anyone who is sick still takes the day off, but they now have it as part of their paid leave and still have sufficient paid leave remaining that they do not feel they are really losing out by taking the day off. As a result we do not suffer from absenteeism, but nor do we seem to have a real danger of presenteeism either.

    It is early days to assess this yet, but it certainly seems to be a very effective policy so far. Does anyone else have experience of this – either positive or negative?

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Annie Hayes


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