Only Hospitalisation Would Stop Millions of Employees from Working, New Study Reveals

13 November 2017 -

Hospital DripHigh workloads and pressure are among the leading reasons why a quarter of UK workers refuse to take a day off sick unless they had no other choice

Jermaine Haughton

Known as presenteeism, the prevalence of sick and unwell employees choosing to continue work duties, rather than rest and recover, has become as big (if not a bigger) problem for managers as absenteeism.   

New research by Canada Life Group Insurance found a significant culture of office presenteeism is brewing throughout UK offices, with almost a quarter (23%) of UK workers – around seven million people – saying they would only take time off work if they were hospitalised and had no other choice.

Nine in ten (89%) UK workers say they’ve gone into work when feeling ill, a proportion which is virtually unchanged compared to 2016 (90%), suggesting employers’ efforts to improve well-being are failing to reduce presenteeism among employees.

Some 47% of respondents say they would come into work with a stomach bug and more than half (55%) would go into work if they had the flu – despite the high chance of this illness spreading to their co-workers.

Half (48%) of workers say they have become unwell due to a colleague’s illness on more than one occasion.

While the ‘stiff upper lip’ mentality may initially seem encouraging to bosses, presenteeism can be incredibly damaging to both the individual and the organisation. Despite being present in the office, an unwell worker is likely to struggle to perform their role properly, slowing them down and increasing the chance of mistakes.

With most employees continuing to work at sub-par levels rather than taking days off to recover, this also prolongs the effect of illness. Subsequently, businesses are experiencing a detrimental knock-on impact on the quality and volume of work produced, with a further impact on overall business performance.

Professor Sir Cary Cooper, author of CMI’s Quality of Working Life report, has referred to it as the biggest threat to UK workplace productivity, costing the UK economy almost twice as much as absenteeism.

The main reason employees cite for going into work when unwell is feeling their illness doesn’t warrant a day off, identified by 69% of respondents. A third (34%) say high workloads have forced them to go into work when unwell, and 22% say they were motivated by financial concerns. Other colleagues/senior members of staff make me feel guilty for taking time off even if I'm ill was cited as a reason by 12% of respondents.

One in ten people say they feel too unsecured or threatened by the risk of redundancy to take time off for illness, and just 3% fear they would be unable to secure a doctor's note.

Paul Avis, marketing director at Canada Life Group Insurance, said managers should provide firm guidelines for unwell employees to take the required sick leave.

“It is incredibly worrying it would take something as serious as being hospitalised to dissuade a quarter of British employees from going into work, showing that a “stiff upper lip” culture of presenteeism still pervades the British workforce,” he said. “People suffering from illnesses like flu and stomach bugs are unlikely to be productive and risk making their colleagues unwell as well by struggling into work.

“We need to be clearer with employees - they should only come into work when fully fit and able to do so, be it physically or mentally.”

“One of the key problems appears to be that many employees don’t think their illnesses are serious enough to warrant taking time off. Employers must do more to show they are serious about supporting employee health,” he added.

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