ThinkingPRESENTEEISM: Why Covid-19 outbreak is the time to tackle it

Employers of all levels in the UK to discourage and tackle ‘presenteeism’ says Instant Offices.
Content Team4 years ago11 min

Presenteeism – the act of working more hours than required – has tripled in the UK in the last decade with more than 4 in 5 people observing it compared to just a quarter in 2010.

As coronavirus (Covid-19) continues to spread, both within the UK and globally, employers should be discouraging, and tackling, ‘presenteeism’ amid government warnings around social distancing and self-isolation.

More than 4 in 5 people admit to working whilst ill compared to just a quarter in 2010

With business practices, and management, being put to the test, the reality of presenteeism and what businesses can do to help keep employees safe during a pandemic need to be spelt out, says workspace innovation company Instant Offices.

A continuing global issue

Numerous countries have now gone into ‘lockdown’ discouraging travel in or out the country. In the UK, it has recently been advised that everyone should avoid “non-essential” travel, with key government measures including:

  • Avoiding gatherings and corded places
  • Working from home if possible, to enable “social distancing”
  • Distancing away from the vulnerable as much as possible to ensure as little chance of infection

Previously, 1 in 5 people ignored their doctor’s advice to stay home when unwell, and studies indicate that doing so can not only reduce productivity by over 30%, but cost a company £4,000 in lost business, on average per employee.

1 in 5 people ignored their doctor’s advice to stay home when unwell

Nonetheless, UK employees displaying little-to-no cold/flu-like symptoms continue to go into work, despite warnings from the government about doing so. For those who are able to work from home, many businesses still aren’t enforcing employees to do so.

Businesses are unprepared for a pandemic

WHO officials warned that the world is dangerously unprepared for a pandemic, and this is reflected within businesses where less than 1 in 10 businesses had policies in place to cover ‘what to do in a pandemic’. To make matters worse, research shows a third of UK workers would lie about exhibiting symptoms of Covid-19.


Previously defined as “showing up to work when one is ill” the concept of ‘presenteeism’ has evolved to include a wide range of detrimental behaviours relating to how we work.

Less than 1 in 10 businesses had policies in place to cover ‘what to do in a pandemic’

This includes employees who arrive early and stay late to show commitment, those who work during annual leave and those who respond to emails at all hours, mistaking an unhealthy attitude towards work as a strong work ethic, often to the detriment of their personal wellbeing. Although those working from home are generally more productive than in an office, remote workers are, on average, working an extra 1.5 days a week, as they feel it is easier to finish a task as they don’t need to think about commuting.

Drivers for Presenteeism

Although figures from the ONS indicate, in the past 25 years, sickness absence has steadily decreased, the pressure to turn up at work at all costs has significantly increased presenteeism, which results in a toxic workplace culture in which no one wins.

A report on presenteeism by Employment Studies found some of the leading causes include:

  • Manager Behaviour – Due to a sense of responsibility, managers can also be presenteeism culprits, unknowingly putting pressure on employees to act the same way.
  • Concern for Colleagues – Studies show employees are likely to go to work ill to avoid a colleague dealing with an additional workload or pressure, especially in situations where there is no replacement.
  • Company Culture – Studies have found perfect attendance to be seen as a sign of commitment to a job, while taking time off sick is seen as a sign of under-performance, particularly in the private sector; a work ethic can be unknowingly perpetuated in an organisation by senior managers and long-time employees.
  • Job Stress – When it comes to stress and presenteeism, the correlation between the two is high, and employees who feel unsure about their job security are more likely to show up when ill.

Combating presenteeism during a pandemic

As with anything new and unknown, there is a level of uncertainty that comes with a pandemic. Keep an eye on the news, and reiterate decisions that could affect their job/ability to work as quickly as possible to reassure people.

Ensure employees know that they are able to work from home

Although it may not be possible for all roles and industries, companies where staff are able to carry out tasks out the office, should let employees know this is something they can do as soon as possible.

Encourage Senior Members to Lead by Example

By managing their own absence and presence and encouraging a healthy work-life balance, line managers and senior members of staff can act as better role models for the organisation, inspiring their teams to do the same. Ensure employees are ‘online’ during working hours and encourage them to log off at the end of the day as normal.

Enable Flexibility

Employees who adjust their working hours and environment are less likely to fall into the cycle of presenteeism. By offering options such as flexible working options or hours, employees can feel more in control and still maintain their work.

Instant Offices have provided tips on how both employers and employees can combat presenteeism especially when it’s so crucial during the pandemic outbreak. To read these tips including a visual infographic, you can find them here.

For more content on presenteeism, click here

Content Team

Work in Mind is a content platform designed to give a voice to thinkers, businesses, journalists and regulatory bodies in the field of healthy buildings.

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