Staff Sickness Absence Levels Are Lower, But Is Presenteeism Rising?

28 March 2017 -


Absence management experts warn that lower rates of sickness absence in your workplace could be down to employee’s fear of losing their job, rather than a healthier workforce

Jermaine Haughton

While employees are expected to be ill from time to time, unexpected and prolonged absences can have several direct and indirect effects on companies. This includes a reduction in productivity due to less workers, the cost of having to find, train and pay for temporary cover and demotivated and stressed team members having to bear the brunt of the extra workload.

Therefore, the new ONS report showing that the average UK worker took just over 4 days off sick last year is likely to be music to the ears of line managers across the country.

The lowest recorded absence rate since records began in 1993, the report found minor illnesses like colds and coughs to be the most common reason for sickness absence in 2016, accounting for a quarter (24.8%) of all sick days. Back and neck pain and other musculoskeletal problems resulted in 30.8 million absences from work, the equivalent of more than a fifth (22.4%) of all sick days.

Those with the highest rates of sickness absence included women, older workers, those with long-term health conditions, smokers, public health sector workers and those working in the largest organisations (those with 500 or more employees).

Reductions in sickness absence rates over the last two decades include workers with long-term health conditions, workers aged 50 to 64, and those working in the public sector, with public sector organisations responding to calls for them to tackle absence after traditionally higher rates than those seen in the private sector.

Staff Working Whilst Sick

Less workers are sick now than ever before. Great, right?

But upon further investigation, absence management experts have suggested the statistics are not as great as they seem, and could be a result of Presenteeism. In other words, employees are taking less sick days because they are still attending work whilst being ill.

Adrian Lewis, from absence management software provider Activ Absence, expressed concern about possible presenteeism where organisations have implemented new absence management policies without investing in new technology.

He said: "It's great to see any reduction in sick days, most notably in the public sector. We know that this has almost certainly come from concerted efforts to manage sickness absence better, and we've enjoyed working with our public and private sector clients to put the tools in place to support sick workers more effectively. My concern is that some employers are still not be getting the balance right - it's not just about improving the figures, we want staff to be healthy, not scared to take time off.”

It is natural for sick employees to feel bad about letting down their colleagues for taking time off and most employers are reasonably sympathetic about their staff's welfare. But returning to work before fully recovering and being in good health is dangerous for individuals and their colleagues.

A separate survey last year by Canada Life Group reported 90% employees said they come into work when feeling unwell. More than a quarter (28%) feeling their workload is too great to call in sick, with a fifth (21%) reporting financial concerns and 17% feeling guilty for taking time off.

Overly-strict and poorly-managed workplace control of staff absences are also a major factor dragging sick individuals to the office. Lewis explained: “Many employers have 'tightened up' on policies without any analysis or investment in tools to give meaningful data. I recently heard of a public sector employee with pneumonia, clearly too sick to work, who was afraid of being disciplined under a sickness absence policy, so went into work anyway. Ironically, the sickness monitoring system being used by that organisation only measured long term absence and could not even identify the 'odd sickie' trends which are far more disruptive to the business. Presenteeism is a very real concern."

The Chartered Management Institute’s Quality of Working Life report showed long hours, over-stretched teams and the pressure from above has driven many managers to overwork at all hours, even when they should be resting. Unsurprisingly, this has been shown to have a detrimental impact on health.

Although respondents acknowledged that both organisations and individuals bear the responsibility of making sure employees are healthy and happy in their jobs, 57% reported experienced insomnia or sleep loss often or sometimes in the previous three months, or muscular problems. Half reported experiencing stress – something which was more commonly experienced in women (18%) than men (10%).

Hiding Mental Anguish

The pressure on staff to work themselves into the ground has also seen some people ignore and hide their mental illness.

The latest ONS report showed 11.5% of sickness absence was attributed to mental illness (including stress, depression and anxiety) which resulted in 15.8 million days off sick.

However, a further study by AXA PPP healthcare suggest the figures should be much greater, with potentially millions of workers hiding their mental health problems from employers. Over a third of employees living with a mental health condition (39%) are not open about their illness at work, with over a quarter (29%) saying the reason is that they are too embarrassed to discuss it.

Other reasons included fear of being judged by colleagues (30%), being judged by their manager (24%) and not wanting to harm their career prospects (22%). The research also revealed that nearly half of employees (45%) say they would be more comfortable talking to their employer about their physical health, than about their mental health.

Lewis, Director at Activ Absence believes that employers should use better systems to proactively spot potential mental health issues, so they are can offer better support to their employees.

“Line manager training enables managers to take a proactive approach and have conversations with employees they suspect may be suffering from a hidden mental illness. Once they are aware, they can make reasonable adjustments and can communicate what assistance is available to support the employee.

“Letting an employee know they will be supported and not judged, can improve the outcome for sufferers of mental illness in the workplace. It can also prevent long term employee absences from work, something many companies are keen to tackle,” concludes Mr Lewis.

For more information about CMI’s current research, click here.

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