David Bourne
   

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British workers are taking fewer sick days than ever before. In 2017 this amounted to an average of 4.1 days per worker – significantly lower than the 7.2 days taken in 1993, when records began.

So, are we becoming healthier as a population? Perhaps. It’s certainly true that in recent years employers have become more aware of the inherent value in having a healthier workforce, meaning that benefits like gym memberships and cycle to work schemes have become commonplace.

But even though we’re spending more time at our desks, UK productivity is flatlining. Signs suggest that, rather than a widespread improvement in health, we’re seeing a rise in presenteeism – people coming to work when they’re unable to perform to their full ability.

According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), 86% of employers have seen staff attend work whilst ill. Coughs and colds can easily spread to other members of the workforce, further reducing productivity. This is an issue, especially if employers are condoning it. Doing so affects business output and sends a message that employers don’t care when their people are unwell; they would rather have them sneezing at their desks than lose man hours.

It’s not just about physical health though. Mental health issues can be a serious concern too and can be harder to spot or raise due to the stigma that often surrounds them. It’s just as important that employees struggling with mental health problems take time away from the office to properly recover. They’ll be more likely to come back to work well and able to perform to the best of their ability.

Making a much-needed culture shift
Presenteeism isn’t a problem with a quick fix. It’s often a cultural issue that is deeply entrenched in the ethos of a leadership team (whether they realise it or not) and the wider organisation. But it’s imperative employers act – or they risk reducing employee engagement and company loyalty.

There’s a clear desire among employers to make a change. But this will require a step-change for many, who will need to start leading by example when it comes to their own health. If people see their managers and leadership teams taking time out when they’re unwell, they’ll be far more likely to do the same. It sends a clear message that when somebody is ill, they should take the time to recover.

Supporting this with open and honest discussions about the importance of wellbeing and the organisation’s genuine desire to help its people look after their mental and physical health will help the cultural shift. This should extend to those working flexibly or from home too.

Defeating digital presenteeism
Our new working patterns are blurring the boundaries around presenteeism. Working from home when you’re ill is effectively just as bad as being in the office. There’s a balance to be struck of course – working from home policies can be great in helping people manage some of the causes of stress in their lives. It can also be useful to send an email or two in order to clear the decks enough to recuperate.

However, employers need to be very clear that working beyond this when unwell is not condoned and they would prefer their people to return to health at full speed, rather than struggling through.

The importance of prevention
Organisations should also take steps to address the root causes of ill health within their workforces. A number are implementing holistic benefits packages that support employees’ financial, physical and mental health.

It makes sense. Factors such as these are all inextricably linked and strain in one area can often trickle through to others.

Savvy HR and benefits teams are embracing technology to defeat presenteeism at a personal level. Administered via online benefits portals, wellness pots allow employees to self-administer benefits that make a tangible difference to their day-to-day health and happiness – whether that be a subscription to a mindfulness app, cooking classes or even music lessons.

This digital approach to benefits management also means employees can access their benefits whenever they want. After all, it would be somewhat counterintuitive for a company seeking to tackle presenteeism to only provide benefits access at work.

Putting presenteeism in the past
There’s a long road ahead when it comes to phasing out the growing trend towards presenteeism. Fundamentally, companies need to look at their culture and management structures and lead by example. People should feel comfortable to take time off when they’re physically or mentally unwell. And that means actually taking time off, not setting up shop at home and continuing to work from there when they should be resting.

But there’s also a job to do in terms of prevention, and that means delivering a holistic wellness scheme where employees can access benefits that address a whole range of productivity-sapping issues. Doing this will lead to a happier, healthier workforce which is more likely to have better employee engagement, company loyalty and productivity.

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