The politics of presenteeism

UK employees are taking fewer sick days than ever before. Last week, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) broke the news that an estimated 137m working days were lost in 2016 – equivalent to 4.3 days per worker. In 1993, when records began, the average was 7.2 days per worker.

Clearly, something’s behind this. Are people getting healthier? Are more people signing up to fitness schemes, taking better care of their health and reducing the likelihood of getting sick? Or are people actually getting sick at the same rate as 1993 but dragging themselves into work anyway, for the sake of presenteeism, where they proceed to cough and splutter and infect half of the people around them?

I’m betting on the latter. And it would seem that the TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, agrees with me. After the ONS figures emerged, she dubbed the UK as “a nation of mucus troopers”, people who are more likely to go to work sick than stay home, rest and recover.

The situation is said to be even worse in the US. Last year, Hillary Clinton attempted to work through a pneumonia diagnosis, hitting the campaign trail and attending a 9/11 memorial service despite being certifiably too sick for work. Granted, she had a presidential campaign to run. But not taking sick leave when you need it isn’t smart, given that it will probably cost you and your employer more in the long run – in the form of lost productivity.

But what if not everyone feels they have that option? ‘Presenteeism’ – defined as the practice of staying at work for more hours than required or being on the job when sick – is the scourge of modern business culture. Cary Cooper, Professor of Organizational Psychology & Health at MBS Manchester University, reports that it costs employers twice as much as absenteeism. He emphasises that longer hours don’t mean more productivity – obvious, right?

But many workers remain under the iron fist of presenteeism. They show up when sick or consistently work overtime, reflecting insecurity about their jobs or a business culture where working long hours is a competitive game to impress others. In our culture, we tend to revere a work ethic that emphasises working longer and harder than anyone else, even if it means that your work encroaches on your personal life.

If you work in a business where you feel pressured to turn up even when sick, changing this culture can only come from the top down. Senior leaders and managers need to promote the importance of wellbeing, recognising the evidence that working longer and not taking time off when needed (around a third of us don’t even use all our annual holiday allowance) is harmful to our health and our productivity.

Posted on 24th March 2017 in Culture&Leadership
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