Kristy Dorsey: There’s no time like the present

93 per cent of employers have reported an increase in the number of staff coming into work ill. Picture: TSPL

93 per cent of employers have reported an increase in the number of staff coming into work ill. Picture: TSPL

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It’s become such an unhealthy sign of the times, it even has an official definition:

presenteeism n. the practice of coming to work despite illness, injury, anxiety, etc, often resulting in reduced productivity; the practice of working long hours at a job without the real need to do so.

Sound familiar? Probably. According to the latest annual CIPD Absence Management Survey, published in October, 93 per cent of employers have reported an increase in the number of staff coming into work ill.

Never mind that you can’t actually do your job properly when you’re not well.

And don’t worry whether you’re infecting your colleagues with the dreaded lurgy – after all, they, like you, will soldier on under any circumstances.

Lancaster University psychology professor Cary Cooper, who is credited with coining the phrase “presenteeism”, estimates that on any given day there are hundreds of thousands of people at work in the UK who are there in body, but not mind. Data from a survey carried out by his company, Robertson Cooper, found a quarter of 39,000 employees admitting to working while ill.

It began in the 1990s with the misguided notion that those with the most “face time” at the office were more motivated, more productive and more committed than colleagues with a better work-life balance. Anyone looking to advance had to clock up massive hours on a regular basis.

Company bosses fostered this mindset with what Tracey Eker, founder of Glasgow’s Flexiworkforce, describes as a “total presenteeism attitude” – “you must be here at nine, I must see you working”.

As the recession hit, bit and moiled its way through the economy, face time became less of a method for getting ahead and more of a rubric for hanging on to any job available. Absence rates were commonly used when companies chose staff for redundancy, and anyone concerned about job security was well aware of that fact.

But it’s not just a matter of the individual’s anxiety, nor the personally unpleasant prospect of hacking, wheezing and sneezing away a day at the office.

Presenteeism comes at a price, both to the company and the wider economy. Estimates vary, but it is thought that presenteeism costs UK workplaces some £15 billion a year, compared to about £8bn for those who are absent from work.

Employees who are unwell are a drag on productivity, and this is an area where the UK can ill-afford any further hits. British output per worker remains remarkably poor compared to both pre-recession and international standards. And it doesn’t stop there. Employees who are ill will infect others, while also taking longer to recover.

Combating presenteeism requires a shift in focus away from the duration or location of work, with staff rewarded instead for the results they deliver. Never mind the width – let’s feel the quality. «

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