UK Employees Three Times as Likely to go to Work Unwell Than Pull a Sickie

14 August 2017 -

PresenteeismWith employees increasingly feeling under pressure to work longer and harder, even when their health is at risk, a new report reveals seven in 10 people have gone to work unwell

Jermaine Haughton

Most bosses have become accustomed to being wary of staff who have a habit of pulling a sickie, as the unexpected loss of an employee puts increased pressure on the rest of the team and may signify wider problems in the workplace, such as bullying, demotivation and low morale.

Absenteeism can also be a result of external issues like financial woes, family pressures and other work responsibilities that maybe taking a toll.

Presenteeism, on the other hand, is much harder to identify with some staff appearing totally fine, despite turning up to work with some sort of illness, whether physical or mental. Thus, these employees are much less likely to be working as productively or safely as they should be due to a physical or mental illness or injury.

Aviva’s Working Lives report shows 69% of UK private sector employees – equivalent to 18 million nationally – have gone to work unwell when they should have taken the day off.

By comparison, less than a quarter (23%) say they have taken a day off work sick when they were not actually unwell, indicating that UK employees are three times more likely to go to work unwell than they are to ‘pull a sickie’.

The disturbing trend of presenteeism is further reflected in a historic fall in the average number of sick days taken annually by UK employees, dropping to a record low of 4.3 days in 2016 compared with 7.2 days in 1993 when the data analysis began.

From reducing productivity to demotivating staff to making current illnesses far worse, presenteeism can often be a bigger burden than sickness absence, costing businesses £605 per person each year and UK employers £15.1 billion a year.

Yet despite the obvious problems, the fourth edition of the Working Lives report – which examines the attitudes and experiences of employers and employees on issues affecting the present and future of the UK workplace – also carries a wake-up call to businesses, as more than two in five (43%) employees feel their employer puts the results of the company ahead of their health and wellbeing.


As with a number of previous studies into the subject, the latest Aviva report suggests the fear of having to endure a higher workload is among the leading reasons why sick individuals decide to go to work.

The findings suggest private sector workers are fearful of heavy workloads if they take time off, as more than two in five (41%) say their work will pile up if they are off sick.  The report findings highlight that only 13% of employers feel there has been more of a focus on employee health and wellbeing over the past year, while just over one in ten (12%) feel there has been an improvement in the working environment over the past year, with employees seeming healthier and happier.

More than two in five (42%) admit they often feel stressed or anxious at work, rising to 46% among younger workers (18-34 year olds).

Employers could also be underestimating the impact stress has on their employees, as only 23% cite this as an issue. Instead, employers view coping with workload (32%) and dealing with change (24%) as greater challenges faced by their employees.

CMI’s Quality of Working Life research has found that the rise of the ‘always-on’ culture has led to a significant decline in the work-life balance of many British workers in recent years, with more than three quarters of managers (77%) working at least an additional hour each day – an extra 29 days over the course of a year.

The survey of 1,574 managers also found that those working long hours are more than three times as likely to report they feel stressed than those working no additional hours; 54% of managers said that long working hours increase levels of stress in workers.

However, Aviva’s findings also suggest that those businesses who do invest in their employees’ health and wellbeing are reaping the rewards.

Of those that offer health and wellbeing benefits, more than three in four (77%) believe this has had a positive impact on the workforce. Employers also report increased happiness levels (41%) among employees with improved morale (32%) and productivity (30%) as a result of having initiatives in place to keep employees healthy.

Furthermore, in a sign of potential changes afoot, two in three (65%) businesses think the workforce will work more flexibly in five years’ time. Notably, of the 64% of businesses who currently offer flexible working, almost seven in ten (68%) said their employees were happier as a consequence.

Dr Doug Wright, Medical Director, Aviva UK Health, explained: “While every business wants the right level of resource in place, having employees who are unwell at work is a false economy. Businesses need to ensure they create a working culture whereby people do not feel pressurised into coming to work when they are unwell, safe in the knowledge their absence can be effectively managed.

“Presenteeism, driven in part by an increased ‘always-on’ culture, poses a genuine threat to overall business performance through the adverse impact on productivity and morale in the workplace. Businesses should ensure they take the lead on communicating proactively to employees that it’s important to take a step back when unwell and it can be in everyone’s interest.

“Businesses can also counter such issues by ensuring they continue to explore new ways in which to improve the working experience for employees. Investment in health and wellbeing is no longer a nice to have; it must be looked on as a priority.”

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