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Cultural and Behavioural Changes Not Process Changes Are Required To Tackle Presenteeism Cultures

Dawn Moore – Group People Director (Murphy Group)

Have you ever felt like you must be at work despite not feeling well?

It is well known that cultures of ‘presenteeism’ are sadly alive and well in many British workplaces today, particularly those that operate in the more traditional, male dominated sectors like construction.

Presenteeism is the problem of employees who are not fully functioning in the workplace because of an illness, injury or other condition. Even though the employee may be physically at work, they may not be able to fully perform their duties and is more likely to make mistakes on the job. Presenteeism has also recently been joined by the increased practice of ‘leaveism’, which is when employees use flexitime, annual leave and rest days instead of taking time off sick when they are too unwell to go to work.  It also includes the practice of working whilst on annual leave or during other non-paid hours.

It is well known that both presenteeism and leavism are associated with increases in accidents, sickness absence and, in particular, reported common mental health conditions which often lead to that sickness absence becoming long term.   A recent survey by the CIPD into both of these areas found that only one in ten of those who are taking action said tackling presenteeism and leaveism are viewed as a priority by the board of the company they worked for.  Similarly, 86% of over 1,000 respondents to the same survey said they had observed presenteeism in their organisation over the last 12 months and more than two-thirds of respondents (69%) reported that leaveism has occurred in their organisation over the last year.

The drivers of presenteeism and leavism are wide ranging and include things like similar manager behaviour, lack of a flexible/agile working culture, poor wellbeing support and lack of proactive interventions outside of formal sickness/absence management policies, job insecurity, concern for colleagues, poor work/life balance and much more.  One thing all of these drivers have in common though is that they require behavioural and cultural change not only by the individual but more importantly the company they are working for if this is ever to change.

So what can our sector do to recognise and change this worrying trend? First of all, lets be realistic about the nature of our work. Every now and again we all often need or want to work over our core hours if there is a particular project or deadline that needs to be met. What is not acceptable however is a cultural assumption that a pattern of doing this regularly is sustainable without carrying repercussions for the wider health and wellbeing of employees.

Presenteeism and leavism behaviours and the subsequent proven mental health impacts, should be treated no differently to the huge emphasis we already place on health and safety to avoid people suffering very visible physical injury.  We have also done so much to tackle the stigma around mental health, so lets make sure we use the right language and do more to spot, support and encourage colleagues to open up as to why they feel the need to continually be at work when they should not be and offer the appropriate support.

Line managers should see it as their personal responsibility to look after the people who work with and for them and encourage all colleagues to have a healthy work life balance.  This includes leading by example when it comes to working hours and patterns, regularly reviewing and redistributing workloads where necessary to help colleagues who appear to be struggling, offering flexibility in a number of ways where it is possible and ensuring simple things like employees taking all of their holiday entitlements can all help.

Various studies have shown over the last three years that presenteeism and leavism have an ultimate cost of around 2.5 times other types of absenteeism overall – now there’s food for thought about where changing the culture and demonstrating visible commitment at all levels to this should be on all our organisational priority lists, particularly if we are to retain and maintain our current employees wellbeing and productivity and make the sector attractive to others to help address our ongoing skills shortage.

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