Call in sick or power through and go to work?

10 Dec 2014 by Megan Crayford-Noble.

You’re busy, you have a ton of work to get done before Christmas and the phone won’t stop ringing; the last thing you need is to be short on numbers. The sooner you get your team all-present and correct again, the better – right? Probably not. Recent research suggests that encouraging employees to come into work when they are ill - known as ‘presenteeism’ - could be an even bigger problem for organisations than employees being off sick at home.

A study carried out by Deery, Walsh & Zatzick (2014) found that people in demanding jobs are more likely to come into the office whilst unwell than people in less demanding roles. Managers might be glad of the extra manpower when things are busy, but findings suggest that presenteeism actually causes longer periods of absenteeism than if employees took the day off sick as soon as they were struck down with the lurgy. Not only that but when people are present in the office and not fully fit, their work performance is usually hindered. Both the quantity and the quality of their work are likely to suffer. Mental ill-health presenteeism alone is estimated to cost the UK economy £15.1 billion a year, and that’s not including those coming into work with coughs, colds and other bugs. It’s definitely a problem worth addressing.

So what can be done to reduce the number of sneeze-filled, unproductive days in the workplace?

Be sympathetic

Overworking employees and enforcing strict attendance rules and policies can make employees feel that they have to come in when they’re unwell. The fear of negative consequences, such as becoming “snowed under”, missing deadlines or being on the receiving end of negative attitude from employers brings them into the office – bugs and all. Reassuring employees of fair practice when it comes to absenteeism and minimising the perception of negative consequences as a result of being off sick is crucial.

Be upfront

As an employer, you need to be aware of any health issues affecting members of your team. As an employee, you should be honest with your boss about any on-going health conditions that you feel are affecting your performance or that you’re suffering from – employers can’t make allowances if they don’t know what’s going on.

Be aware

Education is key. Know what kind of common conditions are likely to affect your staff based on your type of work, demographics etc. For example, women are more likely to suffer from depression than men – depression can greatly reduce productivity and lead to tiredness and fatigue amongst other symptoms. Employers should keep an eye out for signs that suggest that their employees may be suffering with some kind of health condition. Educate employees on the best way to manage common conditions. Make it crystal clear that you are completely on board with the team taking time off to take care of their physical and mental wellbeing. Knowing where they can seek help and encouraging them to do so will ultimately create a working environment with greatly reduced rates of both absenteeism and presenteeism.

Of course best practice for one company isn’t necessarily going to work for another. Large companies can probably manage and feel no ill effects if one or two of the team go down. It's another story for others though. A small PR agency with an important press event would almost certainly need the account lead in on the day. A different protocol needs to be applied in these cases, eg allowing that person to come in later the next day and letting them leave as early as possible on the day. The key is as ever to strike the right balance between the corporate and individual needs.

How do you feel about taking time off work when you’re under the weather?

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