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Presenteeism or productivity?

Ahead of the BITC Workwell Summit on 10th May 2011, this article sets the scene for the event. With contribution from; Tanith Dodge, HR Director, M&S, Bob Grove, Joint Chief Executive, Centre for Mental Health, Alex Perry, Director for Healthcare Provisioning for Bupa’s UK Health & Wellbeing business and Louise Aston, Campaign Director, Business in the Community.

Sickness absence due to mental ill health alone costs UK employers £8.4 billion each year; but the cost of presenteeism, employees working when they’re ill due to depression or anxiety, and therefore not fully engaged, is nearly twice as high at over £15 billion per year. Taking a proactive approach to employee wellness and engagement is not only an essential part of responsible business practice; it can have a major impact on the bottom line: “The evidence linking wellness and engagement to productivity is robust”, says Louise Aston, Campaign Director at Business in the Community (BITC). “Wellness, by which we mean physical, psychological and social health, directly affects how engaged people are in their work. Together, wellness and engagement support sustainable performance. Without both, motivation and performance decline.”

However, many employers still treat employee wellness and engagement as a ‘bolt-on’ rather than as an integral part of the way they do business. Bob Grove, Joint Chief Executive of the Centre for Mental Health, says that mental ill health is one of the root causes of presenteeism and must be managed better by employers. “Mental ill health affects every workplace in the UK. It is a normal part of the human condition, yet most employers vastly under-estimate how many of their staff will have problems with their psychological wellbeing. Employers who take effective action to improve the wellbeing of their staff will reap the rewards for their efforts.” 

According to Bob, training line managers to recognise and intervene early in mental health issues will help prevent the loss of productivity by giving those employees a greater chance of managing their situation. “Line managers must be literate in mental health. If they step back at the first sign of a problem, it can make what is already a very isolating experience for the employee even worse.” For many companies, creating the conditions that encourage employees to seek help for themselves is often the most important first step. At Bupa, for example, an employee assistance programme provides easy access to counselling and therapy. “Supporting the mental health and wellbeing of our employees is a key area for us, and even more so in the current economic environment”, explains Alex Perry, Director for Healthcare Provisioning for Bupa’s UK Health & Wellbeing business.

“We offer a broad range of support for our people to manage their own emotional resilience, including easy access to counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy. We’re also introducing new management training in this area.” Alex is keen to point out, however, that psychological wellbeing is just one element of the integrated approach to employee wellness and engagement that Bupa has developed. Some of these elements are also offered by Bupa to support its corporate clients in this arena. “In line with the BITC Workwell Model, we offer employees a range of support for both physical and mental wellbeing. It starts with all our employees knowing their own health headlines by completing one of our leading health assessments. We then offer a range of support to help our people be healthy, from on-site gyms to stop-smoking coaching. If an employee falls seriously ill, we offer support to get them back on their feet and back to work.”

Marks &Spencer is another company that has long advocated the total wellness of its employees. For Tanith Dodge, Group HR Director, providing the opportunities for employees to improve their own wellbeing makes commercial sense:  “The better people feel health-wise, the more engaged, motivated and committed they are at work. For example, our employee opinion survey, which goes to all 80,000 employees and where we achieve a response rate in the high 90 percent, shows a clear correlation between high engagement levels and reduced. absenteeism, improved sales performance and better mystery shopper scores. Our top performing stores have the hghest engagement scores.”

A volunteering programme and ‘Live Well, Work Well’ confidential helpline are just two of the ways in which M&S supports its employees. More recently, the company launched its Wellbeing Website, where employees can make a personal pledge to improve the quality of their lives. “Since the launch of the website in May 2010, we have already received 10,500 employee pledges, including commitments to getting more sleep, drinking more water or taking more regular exercise”, explains Tanith. “We are also acting on employee requests for specific support, such as more information about the menopause and managing energy levels.” When it comes to measuring presenteeism, Louise, Bob, Alex and Tanith agree that it’s difficult, but by no means impossible. Like M&S, many companies have developed systems of performance measurement and make use of of BITC’s Workwell Model, which provides a framework for articulating the benefits of taking a strategic, holistic approach to positioning employee wellness and engagement as a boardroom issue.

“We have been through a particularly tough economic period and recovery is not going to happen overnight. As such, employers are having to do much more with less, which can put additional physical and psychological pressure on employees. Ensuring employees are fully engaged and motivated at this time is paramount to avoiding the risk of presenteeism and crucial for maintaining, or even improving, business performance”, concludes Louise. Organisations wishing to discover more about managing presenteeism should attend the third annual BITC Workwell Summit on 10 May 2011 in central London. Find out more and register at

Louise Aston
Campaign Director at
Business in the Community (BITC)


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