UK Employees Taking Fewer Sick Days May Point to Presenteeism

UK Employees Taking Fewer Sick Days May Point to Presenteeism

New government data from the UK indicates that employees there are taking sick days off work at a historically low rate, Workplace Insight’s Neil Franklin reports:

A new report from the Office for National Statistics suggests that the number of sickness days taken by UK workers has almost halved over the past two decades to reach a record low. It dropped from an average of 7.2 days in 1993 to 4.1 days in 2017, and had been steadily falling since 1999. The total days lost for all workers last year was 131.2 million, down from 137.3 million in 2016 and 178.3 million in 1993. Since the recession, sickness absence rates have declined by 0.5 percentage points to 1.9 per cent last year. The reasons are not explored in the report but one possible explanation would be the growing number of people prepared to work when they should really take time off.

A report published in May by the CIPD and SimplyHealth on the state of health and wellbeing in the UK workplace found that presenteeism (workers showing up to work even when sick) was a growing problem, with 86 percent of employers saying they had seen staff come into work while sick over the previous year. That marked a significant increase from 72 percent in 2016 and just 26 percent in 2010, yet the same survey found that only a quarter of organizations that had seen signs of presenteeism had taken steps to mitigate it. The CIPD/SimplyHealth report also found that many employees were working while they were supposed to be on vacation, while other recent studies have suggested that many full-time UK employees aren’t taking the full paid leave benefit to which they are entitled.

Presenteeism could well be a factor in the trend identified by the ONS, Rachel Suff, senior employment relations adviser at the CIPD, told Ashleigh Wight at Personnel Today.

“If people feel the need to show up to work when sick that’s not the sign of a healthy workplace, which isn’t good for them or the organisation,” she explained. … “Unmanageable workloads and a long hours culture are partly to blame for this worrying trend. … When people are genuinely unwell, they will not be productive at work and organisations need to have an attendance management culture that supports people when they are ill and discourages unhealthy behaviour like presenteeism.”

Another reason to discourage employees from coming into work while unwell is that contagious diseases like colds and influenza spread easily in the close confines of a typical workplace, putting other employees at risk of falling ill. Presenteeism was identified as a possible contributing factor to the severity of last winter’s flu season in the US, where paid sick leave is not guaranteed and where hourly, contingent, and low-income workers often lack access to it. The epidemiological consequences of presenteeism have been cited as evidence in support of state laws mandating paid sick leave. Most UK employees are entitled by law to a minimum of £92.05 per week in Statutory Sick Pay when they are off work sick for four or more consecutive days, but many employers there compensate staff for sick days at a higher rate or at full pay.

The most common causes of sick leave were coughs and colds, according to the ONS, but mental health issues accounted for some sickness absences, with 8.1 percent of women and 5.7 percent of men citing mental health as a reason for them taking sick leave. The gender difference here suggests that men are less likely than women to seek medical attention for mental health problems, the ONS added. Other recent studies have pointed to mounting mental health concerns in the UK workforce, driven partly by stress and overwork.

A National Health Service study published last year found that mental and behavioral disorders accounted for 31 percent of fit notes issued by general practitioners in England between December 2014 and March 2017, and that the number of workers who took sick leave or were put on restricted duties because of stress or anxiety increased by 14 percent between 2015-16 and 2016-17. Despite signs of widespread mental health challenges in the workplace, many line managers there said in a survey last year that they would have trouble identifying mental health issues among their team members and wouldn’t know how to handle them.