United Kingdom

Presenteeism record soars amidst concerns over stress and other ‘unhealthy workplace practices’

June 2018

The numbers of people coming into work despite illness has ‘more than tripled’ in nearly a decade, the CIPD and Simply Health have warned.

Of the 1,000 respondents to the joint Health and Wellbeing at Work survey which took place in November 2017, 86 per cent said they had observed presenteeism in the workplace over the past year in comparison to just 26 per cent in 2010.

‘Leaveism’ whereby people take annual leave to catch up with work was also found to be a growing issue, with over two-thirds reporting that leaveism took place in their company within the last twelve months.

Despite this, fewer employers are ‘taking steps’ to address these ‘unhealthy workplace practices’ than there were in 2010, the CIPD say. Just a quarter of survey respondents said their employer had made attempts to tackle leaveism and presenteeism over the last year although 48 per cent of employers were looking at these issues in 2010.

According to the CIPD, there is a correlation between increased presenteeism and an increase in work-related stress and other mental health issues. But just one in ten of those employers who are actively tackling the problem said it was a board priority, leading to concerns among experts and specialists that many employers are failing to understand the impact presenteeism can have on the workplace.

Charles Alberts, head of health management at Aon said the CIPD/Simply Health findings correlated with Aon’s own research. In particular, the Aon 2018 Benefits and Trend survey found that 68 per cent of employers have noticed an increase in mental health-related illness among the workforce.

“So not only is it a significant issue for businesses but a growing one. Poor outcomes such as people feeling obliged to come to work whilst ill needs to be tackled head on,” he said.

The CIPD/SimplyHealth survey also found:

  • 55 per cent of respondents reported an increase of anxiety and depression within their organisation over the last year in comparison to 41 per cent the previous year
  • Technology was having an impact on employee’s ability to ‘switch off’ from work after the working day with nine out of ten saying it was a problem.
  • Average employee absence increased from 6.3 days per year in 2016 to 6.6 days per year in 2017.

Rachel Suff, senior employment relations adviser at the CIPD commented: “Increasingly, the threats to wellbeing in the modern workplace are psychological rather than physical, and yet too few organisations are discouraging unhealthy workplace practices and tackling stress, which is strongly linked to health conditions such as anxiety and depression.”

Employers should ‘look beyond’ sickness absence rates and ‘develop a solid evidence-based’ understanding of underlying causes of stress and unhealthy workplace behaviour, she said.

“If employers want to build a workforce that is happy, healthy and productive, the well-being agenda needs to be a priority and employee well-being practices must be integrated in the organisation’s day-to-day operations,” she added.

According to Alberts, workplace interventions should be evidence-based and address the underlying cause of presenteeism while employers should take steps to ensure wellbeing becomes a fully integrated part of the workplace culture. He added that an important first step would be to conduct an audit to identify the sources of work-related stress.

He continued: “We acknowledge that it’s difficult to embed cultural change needed to address risks such as work-related stress which can give rise to presenteeism but what’s most important is making a start. Getting buy-in from board level is essential and there are numerous sources of data to support the business case for action.”


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