As businesses continue to rebound from the pandemic, and new ways of hybrid and remote working become embedded, a new ERC study finds that while mental health-related sickness levels are remaining flat, presenteeism has increased sharply. Some reports suggest that this may, in part, be a consequence of new working practices. What does this mean for employee wellbeing? How could, and should, employers respond?
Workplace mental health issues are estimated to cost UK employers £56 billion a year of which nearly half – around £27 billion – is attributed to presenteeism (when employees are working when ill, or are routinely working beyond their contracted hours). As part of a longitudinal study funded by the ESRC, we have been tracking workplace mental health issues since before the COVID-19 pandemic and the most recent data from this research shows a startling jump in reported presenteeism. In the latest survey, carried out in the first quarter of 2023, 37% of employers reported some level of presenteeism in the past 12 months compared to only 21% in the previous year. At the same time, the proportion of employers experiencing mental health-related absence is broadly unchanged year-on-year, at around 27%. More firms are reporting both that employees are working when ill, and that they are working beyond their contracted hours. This increase is evident in firms of all sizes and in all business sectors, which suggests that it is being driven by broader macro- environmental factors rather than specific industry or firm size issues. The most common reasons given for presenteeism by employers are ‘the need to meet business deadlines or to respond to client demands’, cited by 34%, and employees’ ‘need earn more money’, which is cited by 23%.
While the precise reasons for the increase in presenteeism are not clear, it is possible that an increase in employees working while ill could be related to the rise in the cost of living, making employees less willing to sacrifice income. In addition, the increased costs of doing business may be driving job-protecting behaviours as employees fear redundancy through cost-saving measures. Current research focusing on the effects of remote working suggests that working at home may make it more difficult for employees to psychologically detach from work, which may also be driving presenteeism. There is little doubt that remote working has normalised working while unwell, as employees can be present at meetings without fear of infecting colleagues or while their mental health issues preclude in-person attendance. This is a potential problem as research has linked presenteeism with stress and burnout in individuals, which inevitably impacts on firm-level performance too.
Encouragingly, nearly 70% of firms experiencing presenteeism say that they are taking steps to address it, with the most common approach being to send home staff who are unwell. The survey findings also indicate that employers are conscious of the need to promote a good work-life balance for employees who are working remotely, with nearly 80% saying that they encourage employees working remotely to maintain a clear distinction between work and leisure time. However, the majority of firms say that use informal reminders rather than formal communications to do this.
Presenteeism can be detrimental for employees and firms. As remote working becomes a fact of life for many, finding effective ways to encourage a good work-life balance for those working remotely will be increasingly important. Employers will also need to ensure that their employees feel able to take sick leave when necessary, and that they don’t feel pressured into routinely working additional hours. Understanding the underlying causes of the increase in presenteeism should also undoubtedly be a focus for research in this area, to inform policy and practice.
Maria Wishart, ERC Research Fellow
Please note that the views expressed in this blog belong to the individual blogger and do not represent the official view of the
Enterprise Research Centre, its Funders or Advisory Group