How to stop presenteeism in the virtual workplace

Casual young businesswoman working late on a laptop computer in a modern office space

Casual young businesswoman working late on a laptop computer in a modern office space

You’ve woken up with a sore throat, pounding head and a runny nose. It’s just a bad cold – not Covid – but you feel terrible and can’t think straight. If you were working in an office you would probably call in sick and stay in bed, but because you’re working from home, you drag yourself to your desk and log on.

Presenteeism, where employees show up to work when they’re unwell, is a growing problem. Data from health insurer Vitality revealed that just under half (45%) of UK workers suffered from presenteeism in 2019, compared with 29% in 2014. Of those surveyed, younger workers were more likely to come into work when sick.

And now, the combination of the coronavirus pandemic, the shift to remote work and the “always on” digital culture has triggered a new type of presenteeism: e-presenteeism.

With businesses under pressure to stay profitable at a time of economic uncertainty, many of us feel the need to be productive and available at all times. Redundancy and income loss is a very real risk, leading to a reluctance to call in sick. However, showing up to work when you’re unwell has obvious risks and pitfalls. Not only are you likely to infect your co-workers, it’s unlikely that you’ll be productive even if you are in the office.

Read more: When is the right time to quit your pandemic job and return to your career?

“Presenteeism is a serious issue. People continuing to attend the office when sick, stressed, or burnt-out is a vicious cycle,” says Kayleigh Frost, head of clinical support at workplace health and wellbeing firm Health Assured. “If you’re already suffering, working through it isn’t going to make it any better. You might spend time at your desk, but when you’re unable to do anything productive with that time, there are no benefits for anyone.

“Virtual presenteeism is just as bad, if not worse, as some employees may push themselves to work every hour of the day while at home,” she adds. “An ‘always-on’ culture is extra-hard to shake if you’re always in the place where you do your work, after all.”

E-presenteeism has become much more of a problem during the pandemic. With many businesses trialling working-from-home for the first time as a result of Covid-19, employers may expect people to be logged on 24/7 – even when sick. And it can be problematic for both businesses and employees.

“Employees who insist on working when sick may be present in body but aren’t often present in mind,” says Frost. “It’s challenging to concentrate and give your best when you feel rotten – this can be due to stress, anxiety, or even a COVID vaccine.

“Presenteeism can lead to a disengagement of staff from work, which can then lead to them performing below par, thus not attaining the usual standards that their employers have come to expect of them.”

Continuing to work through an illness – even a bad cold – can mean it can take longer to recover. The stress of trying to power through work when sick can negatively impact the immune system, so the symptoms may linger. And if you’re unwell, you’re more likely to make mistakes.

Read more: What is ‘failing-up’ and why is it more common than we realise

As a result, presenteeism can actually be more expensive for a business. Research from Nottingham Business School (NBS) in 2017 found that the average UK employee spends almost two weeks a year at work while ill – costing firms more than £4,000 per person due to low productivity.

It can be more difficult to spot presenteeism among remote workers, particularly if they tend to communicate by email or Slack (WORK), rather than video calls. However, there are several steps businesses can take to tackle the issue.

If you suspect your remote staff are working while unwell, it may be helpful to introduce a workplace presenteeism policy. The document should clearly outline your stance on employees continuing to work sick, which can help to put people at ease when it comes to calling in sick.

“This should help staff members understand under what conditions they should take some time off. For example, if their illness becomes a risk to their health and well-being and the people around them or impacts productivity,” explains Frost.

Taking a stronger stance on promoting physical and mental health in the workplace can also discourage people from working when sick. This can range from encouraging employees to take regular breaks and time off, to ensuring people’s workloads are manageable. Make sure people leave work on time and aren’t under pressure to answer emails out-of-hours.

“Lead by example. As an employer, you need to practice what you preach. If you don’t want your staff to work while they’re ill, then you shouldn’t either,” says Frost. “Although it’s better to give yourself time to recover properly, consider keeping in touch via phone or email if there’re urgent issues that need to be addressed immediately. If your staff see you doing this, they’re likely to do the same.”

Watch: How to answer difficult job interview questions