The dangers of presenteeism

When someone is absent from work, the remaining staff may take on the extra load – but when staff come in to work sick, everyone is at risk of catching a cold. Which is worse? Practice Business looks at the dangers of presenteeism

It won’t come as a surprise to any practice manager that an employee’s absence from work can be a disruption. According to a report by ERS Research and Consultancy, sickness absence costs UK businesses an estimated £29bn annually, with the average worker taking 6.6 days off each year.

It can cause a range of problems; work doesn’t get done, or remaining employees can get over-worked, there can be a drop-off in productivity and things can fall through the cracks.

Despite the severity of the problem, only 91% of firms track staff absences, with 39% logging them on paper or in a spreadsheet, leaving things open to human error, according research commissioned by HR and payroll specialist Moorepay.

This means organisations are failing to track the true picture of absenteeism. In addition, absences due to training, compassionate leave, medical appointments, sabbaticals and duvet days are only reviewed by 55%, 51%, 50%, 28% and 20% respectively.

Presenteeism isn’t any better

Being absent from work causes problems, but ‘presenteeism’ – when an employee comes in to work despite being too ill to be productive – can be almost as bad. Feeling compelled to work even when ill often goes hand–in-hand with high-pressure workplaces where employees are stressed and feel obligated to attend.

More than three-in-ten organisations reported an increase in people coming in to work ill in the past 12 months, according to ERS. Those who had noticed an increase in presenteeism were nearly twice as likely to report an increase in stress-related absence as those who hadn’t (64% versus 35%).

Presenteeism is embedded in the culture of medicine, says Clare Gerada, medical director of the NHS practitioner health programme. Speaking about BMJ research which found that GPs are the most likely to attend work when they’re ill, she believes it’s their ‘compassion for patients’ that means they attend work even when they shouldn’t. This commitment and focus on patient care is shared across GP practices – and can go some way to explaining why practice staff choose to come into work.

This can be bad news for the remaining employees, however. Even though they may not be asked to take on an extra share of the workload, working in close conditions can mean the office becomes a petri dish for disease if the illness is contagious – before you know it, half your staff could be struck ill. In a practice where patients may be seriously ill, this could also, unnecessarily, expose them to serious risk.

Tackling presenteeism

Working when ill – particularly in a GP practice where you are highly likely to come into contact with those in poor health – is an unacceptable situation. Every organisation should have a sickness and absence policy that all members of staff are aware of. A timely reminder of the responsibilities of all staff – and a reiteration of the support available – can help to reduce the likelihood of presenteeism.

Presenteeism denies the employee time to recover, meaning the period of ill health is generally stretched out. It can directly affect productivity within your practice.

If staff insist in attending work while sick, it’s important that they are challenged – for their own health’s sake and that of the staff of the practice and the patients it cares for.

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