Presenteeism: Beat It!

11th December 2014

Human resources experts can often be found discussing the big questions of our era, such as: is presenteeism worse than unjustified absenteeism? We’ll take a look at potential motivations and cures for this very modern affliction.

Presenteeism is where employees come in to work when they should really be off sick. It is the polar opposite of workers staying off work when there’s nothing wrong with them.
At first glance, presenteeism is a good and honest – but potentially flawed – thing to do, whereas “throwing a sickie” is taking your employer for granted and is borderline fraud. But is this how employers see it? It might actually be more complicated and less intuitive than you think.

The question revolves around whether people who throw sickies (and presumably have a pleasant rest and return to work more refreshed) are more productive than those who drag themselves to work when they should be tucked up in bed (and work at 50% capacity while prolonging their illnesses).

Now clearly, no company can afford to have too lax an attitude towards sickies – these things have a habit of getting out of hand. But some employers could be accused of turning a blind eye to their serial presenteeists when they should be packing them off home with thermometers sticking out of their mouths. As well as postponing their recovery, they could well be spreading bugs that could close down the whole workplace.

But what drives people to come in to work sick when there are laws and company policies that say it’s OK if they stay at home? We’ve identified ten characteristics of the presenteeist for you to look out for – and suggestions as to how to deal with the situation.

1. They’re the “Teacher’s Pet”

Some feel their carefully cultivated whiter-than-white image will be tarnished by being less than perfect and getting ill, so they mask it and go in anyway. In extreme cases they can exaggerate it to enhance their presenteeist status, making sure they don’t overdo it and get sent home.

Dealing with it

These people need to be reassured that genuine sickness isn’t a crime, indeed that they are protected by the law when it comes to sick days. It’s worth pointing out that they are valued for the work they do, regardless of whether they take the odd day off sick – and that having a 100% attendance record has no effect on how they are viewed.

2. Fear for Their Job Security

Many people have a genuine fear that their sick days will count against them come the next round of redundancies or promotions. Some will even use up annual leave rather than sick days, perhaps retrospectively. Some may feel that the management will judge them as “not pulling their weight” if they have sick days.

Dealing with it

While it’s true that excessive absence can be a deciding factor when redundancies or promotions are being considered, these people need to be treated sensitively, as they could be showing early signs of stress.

Everyone gets sick from time to time and it’s no reflection on their commitment or ability if they stay at home. Companies need to make clear that they would rather have the employee rested and ready for work sooner – you’d never see a football club allowing a player on the pitch if they were anything less than 100% fit.

3. Love their Job

These guys love their jobs so much they can’t bear to spend any time away as long as the doors are unlocked. Some will forego holidays until they are forced to take them, and they see no reason why it should be any different for sick days.

Dealing with it

While it’s nice to know that your employees love working for you, there’s a fine line between a warm glow and complete burnout. Your staff need holidays and they need to rest when sick. Let them know you appreciate their enthusiasm but that they’d bring more to the company if they let themselves rest when they needed it.

4. They Need the Money

All full-time jobs pay sick pay, but some people on zero-hour contracts or those working freelance will suffer if they’re not working. So in they come, putting in the hours with a steady supply of Lemsip to keep them going.

Dealing with it

This probably runs deeper than the presenteeism debate itself, and like the job security fears, its remedy is more about reassurance. Perhaps you could let it be known that the lost hours could be made up in overtime or extra work. With freelancers it’s a different situation altogether as they are not in your employment. Freelancers have separate fears because they’ve often worked hard to become exclusive suppliers and worry that you’ll turn to someone else if they are unavailable. It’s really up to them if they come to work, but you’ll have to be firm with them if their illness affects the quality of their work.

5. They’ll Miss Bonuses

Whether it’s a waiter who relies on tips, someone in retail who gets commission or there’s a company-wide reward scheme for attendance, some people will go in for the money even if they do get sick pay.

Dealing with it

In November 2014 a tribunal ruled that workers who received regular bonuses but only got their basic pay when they took a holiday were entitled to their “normal” pay. Although it doesn’t apply to sick days, the principle remains, and perhaps one day that will change. As an employer it’s up to you if you decide to also raise employees’ sick pay to levels they would receive normally. However, if you’re running a restaurant or any business with customer-facing staff, you can insist on employees being sent home if their illness causes a hygiene or public image risk – nobody wants their food brought to the table by someone with a runny nose or sneezing fits.

6. Nobody Will Believe They’re Ill

So it’s the day after your birthday and you wake up with an unrelated cold. Or you’ve just got back off your summer holiday and you realise on Monday morning that you’ve got food poisoning. Do you take the day off?

Dealing with it

A day off sick is a day off sick, and while it might raise suspicions if it happens to come straight after some event where drink might be taken, employees shouldn’t go in to work if they’re ill. Employees can help themselves by getting some sort of proof, but the employee’s handbook and the contract will still apply when it comes to fit notes. Ultimately, if an employee is too ill to work they shouldn’t be there. If it’s self-inflicted then it strays into disciplinary territory – especially if it becomes a regular occurrence.

7. Can’t Judge their Own Sickness

Some tough people will think nothing of losing a toe in a bizarre hoeing accident and hobble into work the next day. Others take the day off for a broken eyelash. But between these extremes, where is the threshold of sickness? It’s not always easy to judge, and varies from employer to employer.

Dealing with it

Employees need to know what constitutes a good reason to be off sick. Some justifications are: (1) where working causes physical pain; (2) where there’s a risk of spreading something contagious; or (3) where illness or injury adversely affects the ability to do a day’s work. Examples: (1) a severely sprained ankle where the job requires walking; (2) a nasty flu; or (3) bad toothache that won’t improve by being at home but which makes it impossible to get into the work frame of mind.

8. Consider themselves Indispensable

They’re so convinced of their importance to the functioning of the company that they fear it will sink without trace if they have to phone in sick.

Dealing with it

There’s a well-worn phase that goes, “Nobody’s indispensable” and it’s true. The idea that a company would struggle to get by without one particular person for a few days would only hold true if the company in question was so badly run that the presence of one lynchpin employee is what keeps it afloat. Remind them that you survived perfectly well before they joined you and every time they take a holiday, and politely ask them to go home and take their box of tissues with them.

9. Consider Themselves Dispensable

Others fear that in their absence, the powers that be will discover that the business functions perfectly smoothly and that they are therefore surplus to requirements.

Dealing with it

Such low-level paranoia is quite common, but companies tend to staff themselves above what they actually need to take account of holidays and sickness, which add up to perhaps 10% of the working year for an average employee. If an employee is feeling so undervalued that he or she daren’t take a day off sick, it’s probably a problem that persists throughout the year and will therefore need more in the way of reassurance and being made to feel important. Remind them that companies aren’t generally in the habit of employing people they don’t really need, and make an effort to say thanks every now and again.

10. Need to Get a Project over the Finishing Line

After spending three months on a project and with the deadline looming, they feel like it’s the right thing to do to come in and make sure the final stages all go to plan.

Dealing with it

Is this presenteeism? It would depend on the ailment with which the employee is afflicted. The employee might have poured their heart and soul into a project and will happily struggle into work to make sure the finishing touches go to plan. The rules pointed out in reason 7 are probably a pretty good guideline. Maybe a spot of remote work could function well, with the key member of staff on hand to give occasional guidance to the others. This one is probably a judgement call – but don’t pressure an employee to come in just to save your skin. That could have repercussions …