Presenteeism hits record high in UK organisations as stress at work rises

Increase in people going to work when ill linked to increases in stress, anxiety and depression

‘Presenteeism’, or people coming into work when they are ill, has more than tripled since 2010, according to the latest CIPD/Simplyhealth Health and Well-being at Work survey.

86% of over 1,000 respondents to the 2018 survey said they had observed presenteeism in their organisation over the last 12 months, compared with 72% in 2016 and just 26% in 2010. The survey also found that ‘leaveism’, such as people using annual leave to work, is also a growing problem. More than two-thirds of respondents (69%) reported that leaveism has occurred in their organisation over the last year.

Despite the disturbing figures, only a minority of organisations are taking steps to challenge these unhealthy workplace practices. Just a quarter of respondents that have experienced presenteeism (25%) say their organisation has taken steps to discourage it over the last year, a figure that has almost halved since 2016 (48%). Similarly, only 27% of those who have experienced leaveism say their organisation is taking action to tackle it.

Increased presenteeism is associated with increases in reported common mental health conditions as well as stress-related absence, which are among the top causes of long-term sickness absence, according to the survey. However, only one in ten of those who are taking action said presenteeism and leaveism are viewed as a priority by the board, and less than six in ten (58%) say their organisation is currently meeting the basic legal requirements for reducing stress in the workplace.

Rachel Suff, Senior Employment Relations Adviser at the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development, comments: “The survey shines a light on the shocking scale of presenteeism and leaveism we have in the UK, as people feel under even more pressure at work. Increasingly the threats to well-being 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.

“In order to encourage a healthy workplace, organisations need to look beyond sickness absence rates alone and develop a solid, evidence-based understanding of the underlying causes of work-related stress and unhealthy behaviour like presenteeism. Without this evidence base, efforts to support employees and improve their health and well-being will be short-lived.”

The survey also found that a focus on employee well-being as a whole can reduce unhealthy workplace practices. Respondents who agreed that senior leaders and line managers are bought into the value of employee well-being were twice as likely to report that steps have been taken to reduce presenteeism compared with those who disagreed. Leaveism is also less common in organisations that are more focused on employee well-being. Despite this, nearly one in five respondents (18%) report that their organisation isn’t doing anything to improve employee health and well-being, compared with just 8% in 2016.

Suff continues: “Good leadership and people management practices form the bedrock of healthy and resilient workplaces, so every employer needs to focus their attention on these areas if they want long-term, sustainable change. It’s positive to see that employers who are taking action against unhealthy workplace practices are seeing the benefits of doing so, but we know that that employee well-being is still too low down the agenda for many other organisations.

“Put simply, a reactive, ad hoc approach to well-being is not enough. 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.”

Pam Whelan, Director of Corporate at Simplyhealth, comments: “An organisation’s greatest asset is its people and so it’s vital employers recognise the need to support their employees’ biggest assets – their physical and mental health and well-being. It’s concerning to see that levels of presenteeism have risen significantly over the last eight years and more so that fewer employers are taking proactive steps to discourage it.

“The report shows that organisations where senior leaders and line managers recognise the importance of well-being as a whole are more likely to report a reduction in presenteeism and leaveism. Therefore, in order to tackle these unhealthy work practices, we would encourage employers to invest in a wider health and well-being approach that is embedded into their culture and one that supports a preventative approach to employee health and well-being.”

Further highlights of the survey include:

  • The average level of employee absence is 6.6 days per employee per year, an increase from 6.3 in 2016
  • Significantly more respondents (55%) have reported an increase in common mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, among employees in the last 12 months, compared with 2016 (41%)
  • Around three-fifths say their organisation has a supportive framework in place to recruit (59%) and retain (60%) people with a disability or long-term health condition. Respondents have called for government to provide an online ‘one-stop shop’ providing information and practical tools and more financial support for making adjustments
  • Advances in technology are generally seen to have more of a positive than negative impact on employee well-being. However, almost nine in ten respondents call out employees’ inability to switch off out of work hours as the most common negative effect of technology on well-being

CIPD Training is running a course on creating a Workplace Well-being Strategy in July, September and December 2018. Highly practical and interactive in approach, the course will give HR professionals the tools required to develop a well-being strategy in their organisation. Find out more here - http://shop.cipd.co.uk/shop/cipd-training/workplace-well-being-strategy

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