The future of presenteeism in the hybrid workplace

Published by Emma Bartlett on July 20th 2021, 8:08am

Writing for The Leaders Council, Emma Bartlett, partner at leading specialist employment and partnership law firm, CM Murray LLP, discusses presenteeism and how business leaders could look to manage it in the post-Covid world as industry adjusts to the hybrid working environment.

Managing presenteeism [and upskilling leaders to do so] as the world of work changes into a hybrid working environment, must remain an imperative for leaders in order to comply with health and safety obligations, reduce the propensity of workplace stress and remove factors which generally could hinder productivity. The pandemic has seen an increase in stresses for some, with homeworking allowing little escape from the working environment. While pre-Covid, workers could check emails and receive calls out of hours, the majority were not able to undertake substantive work from home as much of the infrastructure required was in the office. Now, the majority of office-based workers can do everything they need from home.

Productivity may be uninterrupted, but the potential to feel “always on” increases stress. As we return to the office and the much touted “hybrid working model” is adopted by many businesses, this article considers the possible impact this new way of working will have on wellbeing and presenteeism and what can be done to mitigate potential stresses.

Over the last twenty years the concept of ‘Presenteeism’, that is coming into work when unwell, has become more well known, albeit with an unsavoury reputation. It can be a particular issue in organisations or sectors where long working hours are the norm. Pre-pandemic, 80 percent of UK employees admitted to working when sick. I am frequently surprised now to be talking to someone remotely who tells me that they have coronavirus, but ‘are fine’ to talk. It strikes me that presenteeism is holding firmer than ever with remote working.

Employers are warned that ignoring presenteeism may be storing up long term issues. In a 2020 survey of 600 business leaders conducted by recruiter Robert Half, nearly three-quarters of them had witnessed presenteeism among their staff that had delayed their recovery and potentially threatened the health of their colleagues. In recent research undertaken by the Nottingham Business School, it found that on average a UK worker spends 2.5 weeks a year working while unwell, with a concomitant cost to the business resulting in productivity loss of £4,000 per annum. Reportedly, the change in working habits resulting from the pandemic remains likely to cause a rapid increase in the negative effects of presenteeism. The pressures resulting from fear of redundancy, lack of adequate sick pay, more pressure to be “present” and “prove they are working”, which may be heightened for managers who feel more pressure to be “available to employees” are some of the contributing factors in this next organisational change.

While there are four types of presenteeism, only one of can have a positive impact on the individual with little impact on their work. ‘Functional presenteeism’, where working while unwell does not actually further compromise their health, can actually have a positive effect on an employee’s psychological wellbeing. The employer will still need to assess whether the work or workloads pose a risk to the individual’s health and consider adjusting work/workloads to ensure that their presence remains a positive experience. However, this is about the only type of presenteeism which might be acceptable. The rest can lead to a vicious cycle of presenteeism and absenteeism, and risk to public health if actually attending workplaces while carrying infectious diseases under the misapprehension that the individual has a robust immune system. ‘Dysfunctional presenteeism’ has no positive impact on the employee let alone their productivity. It can impair their future health and productivity.

‘Therapeutic presenteeism’ is where the employee finds working recuperative and helpful to them, but not to their performance or long-term recovery. Individuals might erroneously feel that work “will take my mind off things and help my recovery”. ‘Overachieving presenteeism’ which in the short term may give rise to amazing performance it is at considerable cost to the employee’s health. Individuals are misguided in believing that they must maintain their standard of performance no matter how ill they are.

In summary, presenteeism can cause enduring issues with productivity and seriously compromise employee health, but immediately creates health and safety obligations for employers. Dealing with presenteeism is compounded by working remotely where, particularly during the pandemic, employees felt compelled to be “always on”. However, less than half of employers surveyed had introduced measures to support workers struggling with presenteeism and only a quarter appear to be actively encouraging staff not to work if they are unwell.

Identifying presenteeism is much harder when employees are working remotely. In the first instance, a manager is more likely to spot if an employee is struggling with a physical or mental health issue if they are seeing them in person – video calling is brilliant, but it is not the same. Without that intervention from their manager, the employee may also find the decision as to whether to take sick leave all too complicated. Presenteeism could be a hazard that needs to be managed and assessed. As part of their health and safety responsibilities, employers have a statutory duty to conduct ‘suitable and sufficient’ risk assessments to identify hazards and degree of risk [Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999].

Having identified the risks of presenteeism, identifying the causes will assist in knowing how to manage it. Regular assessment of workloads, working hours, leadership and job insecurity is helpful so interventions can be targeted. We have seen rapid change in working practices and organisation, which will continue, so assessing staff reaction to these will also be necessary. Causes are often cultural, driven by leadership messaging [overt or otherwise]. Reviewing and being vocal about absence management policies and practices will help to shape expectations for taking sick leave, when necessary, rather than battling through. Improve access to occupational health where available, or other support measures, and work closely with occupational health to improve working environments and the experience of those returning to work. Regular employee engagement surveys will assist in identifying barriers to allowing individuals to take time to recover from illnesses as well as identifying trends in working hours, perception of being in control of workloads and supported by managers. According to a recent CIPD workplace survey, unmanageable workloads was found to be the greatest cause of workplace stress. The HSE reported previously in 2017/18, that 44 per cent of all work-related illnesses are attributable to work-related stress, depression or anxiety.

Given the amount of time we spend at work, it is no surprise that employers are under a common law duty to take reasonable care of health and safety of employees. This is extended to ensuring, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety, and welfare at work of employees under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. These duties mean that employers should take reasonable steps to look after both the mental and physical health of their employees.

Strong leadership is also critical to identifying presenteeism to be proactive about their health and safety duties. Managers have a further part to play in taking reasonable steps to support the health of homeworkers, and that is to give them an avenue to tell the employer [essentially reporting] about any risks they may have identified. They need to treat such reports seriously; a dismissive response will undermine the employee’s ability to report risk.

The HSE has published guidance for managers to support home workers dealing with questions such as how you will keep in touch with them, work activity that they will do and over what period, what can be done safely and importantly helping the manager determined whether they can put control measures in place to protect them.

Training managers on how to manage maintaining healthy boundaries to be recommended in the hybrid working environment, where employees may perversely fear a lack in productivity in having to switch between office and home and feel the need to overcompensate when at home. Helping hybrid workers feel socially connected will remain a challenge as teams will still have the mix of office and home workers. Isolation, lack of access to informal information sharing that may naturally take place in the office can increase stress. Managers can create stronger working relationships by encouraging projects which enable team collaboration and progress toward shared goals.

Studies of US employees refer to presenteeism as a “serious drag on productivity and contribution”; the Harvard Business Review defines it as “the problem of workers’ being on the job but, because of illness or other medical conditions, not fully functioning.” According to the OECD, the average American spent 1,783 hours at work in 2017; the UK 1,676; the French 1,472 and the Germans 1,363. However, both Germany, France and the US had a higher GDP than the UK. Spending fewer hours at work does not necessarily mean lower productivity. Interestingly, many economic advisors attribute higher skills base to increased productivity and performance, to which my conclusion is that presenteeism is not the answer.

Managing presenteeism is not just an investment in the long-term wellbeing of employees. Businesses should see, in addition to improved wellbeing, improved retention and productivity. In the current uncertain economic environment, stabilising productivity through a focus on reducing presentism should be on the management agenda.

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Authored By

Emma Bartlett
Partner at CM Murray LLP
July 20th 2021, 8:08am

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