Sickness rates among UK employees have been steadily declining over the past couple of decades – and now the average figure stands at just 4.4 days per person each year. At first glance, this is great news for employers; but then when we consider the rise in presenteeism over the same period, it’s clear the overall health of the nation hasn’t dramatically improved.
Instead, the drop in sickness rates seems to be explainable, at least in part, by employees continuing to work even though they’re not well. With 84% of us reporting we’d work while feeling unwell and the widespread disruption Coronavirus has caused to every single workplace, it’s an important issue which we are keen to get employers talking about.
Over the next few months, we will be looking at the different factors which have contributed to the rise in presenteeism and – crucially – what managers can do to reverse the trend.
Discussions about presenteeism and money often centre around the cost to UK businesses –an estimated £15.1billion each year in lost productivity. But there is another side which needs to be a focus too: the financial reasons why employees would continue working even if they felt physically or mentally unwell.
One in six companies reduce a staff member’s wages down to statutory sick pay (SSP) levels after four days of sickness, and 43% of workers will be switched to SSP once they’ve been off work for two weeks.
Statutory Sick Pay: £95.85 per week (for 28 weeks)
Average Full-Time Weekly Wage: £586
Average Monthly Rent: £700 (or approximately £161.50 a week)
Average Mortgage Payment: £669 (around £154.40 a week)
Average Household Bills: £200 a month (approximately £46.15 a week)
There are 1.05 million UK workers on zero-hour contracts who would need to have earned an average of £120 a week for the previous eight weeks to qualify for SSP – leaving them vulnerable to earning nothing at all for the duration of their time off, if this doesn’t apply.
While there is additional support available for some (such as a mortgage holiday, or benefits to temporarily cover their rent and council tax payments), it’s clear that the maths just doesn’t add up for workers who still need to pay bills, look after their families, and buy essentials such as food and toiletries while they’re unwell. Over 8 million adults live alone in the UK and millions more are the sole working adult in their households, meaning they wouldn’t have another wage to rely on if they were switched to SSP while off work.
One in ten of us have no savings at all, and a third have less than £600 saved. Essentially, this means millions of workers making an impossible decision between struggling on knowing they are not physically or mentally able to carry out their work to the best of their ability, or facing a huge temporary drop in income.
What about self-employed workers?
Self-employed workers aren’t entitled to SSP – this represents 15% of the entire workforce, or 5million people – whose wages would drop to zero if they took any time off sick.
This doesn’t just cover those who own a business, there are also many freelancers, contractors and project workers who are technically self-employed rather than being an employee. With Coronavirus having impacted the economy so badly, many of these people will already have used savings or been forced to get by on less income than normal – so it’s not safe to assume they will have a financial safety net if they need to take some time off work sick.
As well as the prospect of reduced or no income, employees also report a fear of losing their job if they take time off. Employers are legally obliged to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to how and where you work if you are disabled, and should consider whether your duties are contributing to your illness if you’re off work long-term. But being on sick leave doesn’t prevent you from being dismissed from your job.
Those who have just started a new job, who haven’t yet passed their probation period, are likely to be particularly concerned about the impact any time off sick will have on their future within the company. And there is sadly still a belief among some managers that presenteeism is necessary in order to get ahead and seek promotions (although this is reducing as a result of the rise in flexible working during the pandemic, according to a recent study).
It’s telling that 55% of respondents in Paycare’s recent LinkedIn poll about presenteeism reported they had attended work while unwell because they felt pressured to do so; a further 27% said they were sometimes reluctant to report being unwell to their managers, leaving only 18% who had taken time off when needed.
What can businesses do?
Fear of losing out financially if they don’t work through illness – whether short-term through reduced pay, or long-term through fewer promotion opportunities – is clearly having an impact when it comes to presenteeism.
But the good news is that employers can influence this. Here are Paycare’s top five tips to help fight the rise of presenteeism.
- Having a clear sickness policy – only 4% of workers know how much they’d be paid in SSP so setting out how much they would receive and for how long will help resolve any uncertainty.
- Implementing a wellbeing strategy – having support at work for physical and mental ill health does make a difference: for example, every £1 invested in employee mental health brings in £5 in reduced presenteeism, absence and staff turnover.
- Access to a GP app (for round-the-clock telephone and video appointments with a doctor) and/or an Employee Assistance Programme (for confidential telephone advice) supports employees with their physical, mental and financial wellbeing, and potentially helps them get quicker treatment through speedier access to a GP.
- The UK’s free-at-point-of-access health system is world-class, but it doesn’t cover everything – a Health Cash Plan helps employees claim cash back on a range of everyday treatments and healthcare needs.
- Reduce the stress: 10% of staff don’t take time off because of pressure from their employer and almost a third say they have too much work. Finding ways to balance their workload could actually end up with them being able to do more because they’re not feeling unwell at work.
If you’re an employer keen to support your team’s wellbeing during the pandemic and beyond, we have a series of virtual Mental Health First Aid training opportunities – find out more about the courses at www.paycare.org/mhfa-online/.
We’d love to hear your thoughts about presenteeism, and do keep an eye out on the blog for future Paycare insights pieces about the topic 😊