The management perils of staff presenteeism

24 October 2012 -


As employee absence levels fall, stress and mental health problems related to presenteeism rise. CIPD research adviser Dr Jill Miller explains why, and provides steps for counteracting the trend

Sickness absence levels have fallen from 7.7 days per employee per year in 2011 to 6.8 days this year. At first glance, this decrease looks like a cause for celebration, but when we look deeper at the reasons for this fall, some worrying trends emerge.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD)/Simplyhealth Absence Management survey found that a fall in absence levels coincides with an increase in people going to work when they are genuinely ill. A third of employers surveyed said they have seen an increase in such ‘presenteeism’.

The current uncertain economic context we are operating in is taking its toll, with people struggling into work to demonstrate their commitment when their job security is threatened, which suggests presenteeism can be a sign of anxiety. Our survey found that those employers anticipating making redundancies over the next 6 months were more likely to report an increase in presenteeism than those who don’t anticipate making job cuts.

The research also reveals that stress-related absence is on the increase, with 40% of employers saying they have seen a rise over the past year and only 10% reporting a decrease. Furthermore, more employers this year are reporting a rise in mental health problems such as anxiety and depression among their workforce. These trends are not surprising, given the amount of organisational change, job insecurity and increased workloads that many are facing.

What employers can do to counteract these trends:

1. Scrutinise changes in absence levels

If you are seeing a decrease in employee absence levels, how confident are you that it’s due to more effective absence management and the promotion of wellbeing, rather than presenteeism?

2. Train and support line managers

Although line managers take responsibility for managing absence in the majority of organisations, they are not always given the training and support they need to deal with issues such as stress, mental health and presenteeism. However, they are ideally placed to notice early warning signs of such problems in their team, spot trends and take action. Having a consistent and supportive approach to absence management depends on line managers’ confidence and capability to manage people effectively and address these issues.

3. Establish an open and supportive culture

In the current climate, employees may feel they need to come to work when they are ill, no matter what. To what extent do employees feel they need to maintain a stiff upper lip and soldier on? Or do they feel they are able to flag to their manager if they are struggling? Failing to address employees’ concerns is likely to confound any issues and ultimately impact on employee morale and wellbeing.

4. Adopt a proactive approach to wellbeing

A consistent approach to absence management is essential to tackling those who try to take advantage of an organisation’s sick pay scheme. However this needs to be coupled with a proactive approach to wellbeing and support for employees with health problems to stay in or return to work. Our survey found that evaluations of wellbeing spend generally conclude that investing in wellbeing is worthwhile – with employers who evaluate their wellbeing spend being more likely to increase that spend the following year.

To sum up…

Coming to work when you are genuinely ill not only means it will take longer to recover and germs will be spread among the workforce, but ill employees are generally less productive and more likely to make costly mistakes. In addition, employers who reported an increase in presenteeism were more likely to also report an increase in stress-related absence and an increase in reported mental health problems. With the potential negative effects for the individual and the organisation, regardless of sector, these are clearly issues that need addressing.

Image of Dr Jill Miller courtesy of CIPD

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