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Presenteeism & flexible working: a solution for the knowledge economy

Published 6th June 2017 by Investors in People
Working from home on laptop

The UK is facing a presenteeism crisis. There are several ways to tackle presenteeism but we’ll focus on one, flexible working, in this article.

Why? Because many UK organisations will already have implemented some form of flexible working, giving them a headstart in using it to tackle presenteeism.

If you want to improve your knowledge of presenteeism before looking at how flexible working can tackle it, read our comprehensive definition of presenteeism  for HR.

Cognitive capacity: the fuel of the knowledge economy

Presenteeism is not only about coming to work when medically ill: it’s also about coming into work when ‘other events’ would normally compel you to take time off work.

What type of ‘other events?’ Child care, acute stress, sore backs, poor sleep: anything that can affect your short-term productivity, stress levels, family dynamics and health prospects.

All these things reduce cognitive capacity. This is a problem in the knowledge economy because cognitive capacity is the fuel of success. Without cognitive capacity, tasks like concentration, collaboration, innovation and focus are much harder.

Flexible working: designed to sustain cognitive capacity

Flexible working is about empowerment: it’s about employees making the choice of working when and where they are most productive. This makes it useful for tackling presenteeism because it means they can proactively respond to factors which affect their available cognitive capacity.

Without cognitive capacity, tasks like concentration, collaboration, innovation and focus are much harder.

This is good for two reasons: firstly, it means employees will be more able to sustain cognitive capacity, because they are actively managing it. This means that productivity and success in the key processes of the knowledge economy - like concentration and collaboration - are easier.

Secondly, it reduces the effect of stressors on the mind and shortens the recuperation cycle, because employees are able to design their working patterns around recuperation and problem-solving of these stressors. For example, if someone is ill and goes back to work full-time despite not being fully better, they may relapse. But working from home for a few hours every day will help them adjust so that when they do come back full-time, there’s much less chance of a relapse.

Flexible working: three other ways it can help address presenteeism

Employees can control their exposure to stimuli and social interaction

If you have a cold, your resilience drops. That means that an hour’s commute in traffic and a lively office filled with noise and interaction may just be too much to take if you also need to concentrate on an in-depth, energy-intensive project.

However, if you can avoid the commute and at the same time get more sleep, stay at home in a quiet environment and concentrate on your project, then finish at the end of the day and immediately go back to bed, you’re going to be a lot more productive than going into the office. You’re also likely to recover more quickly as you are doing less to deplete your energy and stress your system.

This is not to say that employees should always work from home when ill, but it gives them the choice to maturely manage their productivity.

It helps address personal issues that could cause presenteeism

Flexible working allows employees to design working patterns that support rather than conflict with their ongoing personal responsibilities.

This works both in the short-term and long-term. In the short-term, imagine a dad with a sick child being looked after by a childminder. Rather than sitting at work, unproductive, worrying about his child, the father could stay at home and work while his child sleeps in the other room. It’s the worry and the uncertainty that reduces cognitive capacity and productivity.

In the long-term, someone with a chronic health condition may fail to maintain a regular checkup schedule with their doctor because they don’t want to be off work at the same time every month, negatively impacting their long-term health prospects. Flexible working would allow this person to simply start later and finish later so they could attend their checkups every month.

It reduces the chance of presenteeism for positive reasons

As we’ve covered in our article on a comprehensive definition of presenteeism, sometimes positive feelings cause presenteeism, such as a commitment to work colleagues. Strong working cultures and shared goals can exacerbate this type of presenteeism because workers do not want to ‘let the side down.’

Flexible working is about empowerment: it’s about employees making the choice of working when and where they are most productive.

This is driven by black-or-white thinking on what counts on ‘letting the team down’ - being seen in the office or not. Rather than feeling the need to be in the office, that individual could work from home and be available via phone or email. Essentially they are ‘on call’ and supporting the team but better able to manage their cognitive capacity and recuperate.

What about presenteeism outside the knowledge economy?

Any industry where people must be physically located to do the job will find it harder to use flexible working to tackle presenteeism. However, it can be used, but in different ways to in the knowledge economy.

For example, in the retail industry, introducing usable and flexible mobile-enabled rotaing systems can help. This means your employee base can swap shifts, making it easier for staff to take time off when necessary.

However, flexible working is definitely harder to use as a presenteeism solution outside the knowledge economy, which is why you should also look at broader presenteeism solutions to work alongside flexible working.