Why do employees come to work when they're ill?

Added On: 13th May 2010

Why do employees come to work when they're ill?

Sickness absence is widely measured and monitored but ‘presenteeism’ - where someone attends work when they believe that their ill health would justify them taking time off - is little known or understood. Consequently organisations are unaware of hidden costs and are missing opportunities to improve productivity along with employee health and wellbeing.

Employees who believe that they are doing their employer a favour by coming to work when they are sick are in fact be causing lower performance levels and likely to have greater sickness absences than their colleagues who don’t. These are the finding of research by the Work Foundation which was commissioned by AXA PPP.

The report, Why do employees come to work when ill? followed a survey of 500 AXA PPP employees, and is one of the first reports investigating links between ‘sickness presence’ and individual performance.

The report found that sickness presence was significantly related to performance levels and to levels of sickness absence. It found that:

- sickness presence was more common than sickness absence - 45 per cent of employees surveyed reported that they had been at work whilst ill for one or more days, compared to only 18 per cent reporting that they had taken a day off sick over the same period;

- employees with higher levels of sickness presence had significantly lower performance;

- employees with higher levels of sickness presence also had higher levels of absence;

- employees with a higher level of sickness presence reported higher levels of anxiety and lower levels of psychological wellbeing;

- three factors were significantly linked with higher levels of sickness presence:

* personal financial difficulties;

* work-related stress; and

* perceived workplace pressure (from senior managers, line managers and colleagues) to attend work when unwell;

- employees who perceived pressure from managers and colleagues to work when unwell were also more likely to report that their performance was adversely affected by working when unwell.

The researchers concluded that the findings suggested that sickness presence can be an important indicator of employee health and wellbeing and the underlying causes should be identified and addressed. They believed that tackling the underlying causes of these symptoms, especially those that are work related, could have double benefit in reducing levels of absence and sickness presence.

They also warned that employers may be at risk of underestimating employee ill health and missing warning signs by focusing on absence alone.

The report recommends that employers consider how absence management policies are understood and applied - in particular, whether they are applied consistently and whether employees understand how these policies can benefit them. We would also suggest that employers review the actual policies themselves – applying them consistently is all well and good, but if they are not designed effectively they may not be the right tool for the job, regardless of how consistently they are applied and how well they are understood.

The report also recommends that employers focus on ensuring that line managers have the ability to deal with work-related stress and psychological wellbeing. It predicts that the recently introduced Fit Note could provide a constructive opportunity to review how managers and their teams currently work together to adjust work for employees and accommodate their health problems.

A good starting point would be to consider whether this is an issue for your organisation. Clearly, ‘sickness presence’ isn’t as easy to measure as sickness absence and, short of conducting ‘formal’ research; any data is likely to be subjective and/or anecdotal. However, it should be possible to get an indication of whether this is an issue for your organisation.

Please feel free to contact us for further information or for assistance on this or any other matter.