Opinion

Beware the working dead: presenteeism, a sacrifice too far?

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We've all been there. You're at work but your mind is not only not on the job, it's not even in the building. Concentration shot, an insistent headache thumps in time to clattering keyboards and you haven't written or said a constructive thing all afternoon. Welcome to presenteeism.


Research tells us that the number of people working while sick or on leave has increased. The CIPD/Simplyhealth Health and Wellbeing at Work survey says that it has more than tripled since 2010 with 86 per cent of 1000 respondents observing it in their business. The latest research also shows that at a time of historic lows in sickness absence, presenteeism is growing. And the consequences for people and business are frightening.   

Studies generally focus on lost productivity as presenteeism's main symptom, with managerial solutions – for example line management training - the answer. Who, though, talks about misery and unfulfilled potential as a symptom of presenteeism? To have a job where you are present but effectively ‘absent,’ where you turn up sick or work far longer than is required, maybe using stimulants to keep going.

Sacrificing your health and, with contagious illnesses, the health of others and missing out on precious time with loved ones for the sake of a job that you care little about. These are people’s concrete experiences of presenteeism. Not lost productivity. Don’t confuse how you measure a symptom with an experience of it.  

Research tends to show that women are more likely to 'come to work come what may'

By starting from such an understanding, we can look at the broadest factors that can drive these experiences. Pay and security of employment is a good start: are people regularly ‘let go’ when they approach the end of their probation period because there is a ready pool of labour to take their place? Is the job even ‘real’ (see Graeber's Bullshit Jobs theory) or properly designed?

Have communication technologies being given to staff with a message to ‘always be in touch?’ Are people over-committing to work to compensate for other losses, for example a relationship breakdown? All these real experiences can drive presenteeism and any campaigning efforts must at account for these, if not explicitly refer to them. 

Outside the workplaces it looks like there are societal changes that might be driving presenteeism. Research tends to show that women are more likely to 'come to work come what may' and with an increased proportion of women working, these structural changes can drive presenteeism. For example the year to June 2019, increases in employment was almost 3:1 in favour of women. And of the 9.15 million women working full-time, 6.4 million work part-time - more than double between 1992 and June 2019 (only 2.3 million men work part-time). The number of women with second jobs stands at 671,000, while that of men is at 466,000. 

Colin Orr won British Safety Council's best-under-21 category in the wellbeing poster competition for do-you-get-up-b4-12

We know that many part-time jobs are low paid and that boosting income is a key reason for taking a second job. We also know that fears about pay and job security are a key driver of presenteeism. What role guilt plays in this would be an interesting topic to study - along with a certain over-identification with the demands of work to keep on top things in the face of a high workload.

Of course, we mustn’t lose sight of other issues that can look like presenteeism but are good things. After an operation or period of sickness, an employee might request a ‘reasonable adjustment’ to enable them to work while still at home to avoid travel.

Such a ‘reasonable adjustment’ – so long as it comes from an honest request and not made under pressure to return to work – is an indicator of a strong and trusting workplace culture. Yet presenteeism is also the unpaid 2 billion hours that UK plc workforce put in every year, as highlighted by TUC. We would be naïve not to think that some organisations would not want to lose this ‘free labour.’ 

Presenteeism is a relatively simple thing to describe, good management should be able to measure it but how to reduce and eliminate? Given the multiple drivers of presenteeism - many of which are 'bigger' than any individual - it seems a response that includes Government intervention, public education and organisational change towards good and fulfilling jobs will all be required.

What do you think about presenteeism? Share your thoughts at: https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:6572845167663960064/

Matthew Holder is head of campaigns at the British Safety Council

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