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Presenteeism UK: what’s driving the growing crisis?

Published 23rd May 2017 by Investors in People
Woman ill at work

Presenteeism is destructive to workplaces and society. This article will develop your understanding of the scale and nature of the UK presenteeism problem.

A follow-up article tells you how to tackle presenteeism. For background and context, we recommend our article on the meaning of presenteeism, which tracks its historical development.

Presenteeism statistics UK: what is the scale of the problem?

The problem is widespread

Professor Sir Cary Cooper in 2015 said that one third of workers “persistently turn up to work when ill,” while a CIPD report from 2016 found that 72% of organisations had observed presenteeism at work [infographic].

The problem is expensive

A report from the Royal College of Psychiatrists found that presenteeism-associated mental ill health cost the UK economy £15.1bn a year [PDF].

Back in 2012, Legal & General estimated that presenteeism could cost the UK economy £108bn a year, or three times the cost of absenteeism.

The problem extensively impacts productivity

Absenteeism is suggested in the Legal & General report  to lead to a 4% reduction in productivity, compared to 12% for presenteeism.

Meanwhile, a study cited by Harvard Business Review found that “on-the-job productivity losses from depression and pain were three times greater than the absence-related productivity loss attributed to these conditions.”

The problem is not isolated to the UK

By way of comparison, the total costs of presenteeism in other countries has been estimated at:

Clearly the problem is a global one, but as we’ll see below, there are both UK-specific trends and more general work trends driving presenteeism in the UK.

Productivity in the knowledge economy is shielded from view, so it’s easy to look busy without being busy.

Presenteeism crisis UK: what is driving the problem?

It is largely invisible, especially in the knowledge economy

Harvard Business Review makes the point that in a post-manufacturing society, productivity is much harder to measure, which makes managing it much harder.

If you’ve got flu and work in a warehouse, you’ll be sufficiently weakened to the point you cannot do your job, even if you turn up. But productivity in the knowledge economy is shielded from view, so it’s easy to look busy without being busy.

Working culture is moving towards longer hours

A CIPD report found that high levels of presenteeism were correlated with a culture of long hours. [PDF]

And the UK is increasingly working longer hours: a study in 2015 found that the number of Britons working over 48 hours a week had risen by 15% since 2010. This followed more than 10 years of decline.

Attempts to tackle absenteeism fuel presenteeism

Absenteeism costs the economy £16bn a year and, unlike presenteeism, it’s obvious when someone is absent from work.

There’s evidence that efforts to tackle absenteeism are working: a CIPD survey in 2016 found rates of absenteeism falling [PDF].

Yet the picture is complex. Research from Natasha Caverley et al (2007) found that people are exchanging absenteeism for presenteeism, rather than becoming healthier.

Andrew Clements and colleagues from the University of Bedfordshire write that common absence management techniques encourage presenteeism, such as sickness monitoring systems. These are often triggered by frequency, pushing those with chronic health conditions towards presenteeism.

Successful attempts to reinforce positive workplace culture

It may seem strange to include this, but as we saw in our article on presenteeism meaning, presenteeism - unlike absenteeism - can be driven by positive feelings, such as motivation and loyalty.

A CIPD report found that high levels of presenteeism were correlated with a culture of long hours.

Research from Gail Kinman at the University of Bedfordshire found that police officers “not wanting to let colleagues down” was a key driver of presenteeism.

This makes presenteeism an even harder problem to solve. We don’t want to reduce positive feelings, because they contribute to beneficial outcomes in the workplace, such as an increase in organisational citizenship behaviours.

Deep-rooted uncertainty is reinforcing job insecurity

A survey from the CIPD found that Brexit had heightened people’s job security fears, while a recent YouGov study found that concerns over inflation and job security were dampening people’s consumer confidence, which reinforces job insecurity.

Meanwhile, a reduction in job mobility may encourage people to show outward signs of loyalty to their employer, such as presenteeism.

Our need to do more with less

Markets are extremely competitive as new players enter and democratising technologies make it harder to eke out competitive advantage. As a general trend, people’s jobs have become more diversified and less focused, and we have less time to spend on each task.

This means that it is much easier to fall behind, making time off-the-job more expensive. Presenteeism becomes a viable coping strategy.

Tackling presenteeism in the UK: why do it?

There are four reasons organisations should want to focus on presenteeism.

  • Firstly, presenteeism reflects damaging attitudes towards work, such as job insecurity, which can affect everything from the psychological contract to effective teamwork.
  • Secondly, because it impacts productivity, whereby people are “at work, but not working” [gated].
  • Thirdly, it is an opportunity for organisations. Hemp (2004) said that because presenteeism is invisible and not an obvious problem for solving - especially compared to absence - tackling it can give organisations genuine competitive advantage, which is increasingly hard to find in democratised markets.
  • Fourthly, it damages our relationships with our families, our ability to get the most out of life, and our desire to be true to ourselves.

We will only solve the presenteeism crisis when we realise that people are ‘ill’ for many reasons, some of which affect them and not others, and that having a one-size-fits-all approach to recuperation and illness will never work.

In our follow-up article we’ll tackle how to solve presenteeism. In the meantime, get the lowdown on the historical meaning of presenteeism and why it’s not always meant what it does today.