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Presenteeism solutions: six ways you can tackle the crisis

Published 31st May 2017 by Investors in People
Presenteeism at work solutions

We’ve provided a mature and practical definition of presenteeism for HR and we’ve had a look at why the UK is being rocked by a presenteeism crisis.

You’re probably now wondering how to solve presenteeism to improve wellbeing and productivity. In this article we look at six ways HR can help organisations tackle the presenteeism crisis.

De-stigmatise absenteeism and reduce punitive measures

Absenteeism is costly to organisations and, because it is so obvious, attracts significant effort to tackle it.

This is a double-edged sword because, as Andrew Clements and colleagues from the University of Bedfordshire point out, efforts to reduce absenteeism can inadvertently contribute to presenteeism. Organisations should therefore review their absenteeism-reducing policies to ensure they aren’t encouraging presenteeism.

The Bradford Factor, for example, is used by organisations to identify employees with problematic absence records. But staff with chronic conditions may be compelled towards presenteeism because the Bradford Factor treats many short periods of absence as worse than one long period.

Organisations should also de-stigmatise absence by:

  1. Ensuring senior leaders are seen to be absent when illl
  2. Reinforcing the negative effects of being at work when ill e.g. spreading colds to workers with young children
  3. Broadening the reasonable reasons for absence in the policy to include ‘other events,’ which is key to tackling the perception that non-medical reasons for absence are unacceptable

Reinforce boundaries on positive workplace behaviours

One of the curiosities about presenteeism is that it can be caused by positive feelings. Professor Gail Kinman found, for example, that police officers will go to work when ill because they “they don’t want to let colleagues down.

Equally, Dew et al (2005) studied a public hospital and found that while management didn’t encourage attendance when sick, “professional identity” and “institutional loyalty” fostered a culture of presenteeism.

HR needs to consider how it can continue to build positive sentiment and strong, supportive cultures without encouraging presenteeism, for example by educating on the long-term negative effects of presenteeism, which could damage a worker’s ability to contribute positively to the organisation.

The more hidden any problem - such as childcare stresses, financial worries and other events that can lead to presenteeism - the more likely presenteeism will occur.

Address the mental health taboo and educate on subjectivity

Gary Johns (2010) highlights that people’s perception of illness and the degree to which it affects them is subjective and dependent on multiple factors, such as personality.

This is especially true of ‘hidden’ problems such as depression and anxiety, where there are no obvious external signs of the challenge. The more hidden and less evidenced the medical issue, the more likely presenteeism will come into play.

In fact, the more hidden any problem - such as childcare stresses or financial worries - the more likely presenteeism will occur.

Organisations should therefore focus on the diversity and inclusiveness agenda to encourage respect for others: no-one can judge the suitability of someone’s reason for absence based on their own perceptions and life experience. We are all different.

Ramp up flexible working to put control in employees’ hands

Flexible working is all about empowerment and presenteeism is defined by a lack of empowerment to do what the body and mind need.  

In knowledge work, where employees do not need to be physically present to be productive (and in fact when there is no link between length of time sat at a desk and how much value is added), flexible working allows employees to optimise their working patterns by avoiding working during periods of illness, stress, or when personal problems affect their mental capacity or judgement.

Be careful though: this can encourage people to work from home when they really should not be working at all, so it’s important that proper training is given and the desired behaviours reinforced.

Overhaul sick pay policies

Lovell (2004) found that a lack of paid sick leave exacerbates presenteeism in women. She also found evidence that workers came to work when ill to ‘save up’ sick leave for when their children were ill.

Organisations should look at what behaviours their sick pay policy encourages. For example, does it encourage people to come back to work too early after an illness because the administrative processes for claiming sick pay for absences over five days become time-consuming and invasive?

Sick pay policies should not be designed to discourage absenteeism, but to help people recover quickly and completely.

This is another example of measures designed to tackle absence having a negative effect on presenteeism. Organisations need to remember that absence from work when ill improves long-term health prospects and long-term productivity.

Sick pay policies should not be designed to discourage absenteeism, but to help people recover quickly and completely.

Improve financial wellbeing

Aronsson and Gustafsson (2005) found correlation between presenteeism and a difficulty in managing outgoing household payments. Financial worry creates a sense of job insecurity, which encourages people to display loyalty behaviours.

Helping employees through financial education so they manage monthly budgets more efficiently, and offering safety nets such as emergency loans, loan consolidation, death-in-service coverage and season ticket loans can all help employees develop a healthier attitude to loyalty, rather than being present out of fear for their jobs.