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Is presenteeism an issue in your workplace? (Part one)

Written by: Fit for Work team | Posted in: Blog

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Most people know about the issue of absenteeism in the workplace, but presenteeism may not be something on everyone’s radar. Presenteeism is defined as the ‘act of attending work whilst unwell’, and according to new research from Canada Group Life Insurance, almost 9 in 10 UK employees have come into work whilst sick – either with a physical illness or with a mental health issue, such as stress.

This ‘culture of presenteeism’ could be due to a number of factors. For example, many people will have come into work sick because their workload was too high and they felt unable to miss a day of work. Others may have come into the office because they were worried about earning money, and many will have attended work because of fears about how absence would be perceived by their employers. More than one in ten (13%) in the Canada Group survey said that colleagues and senior members of staff had made them feel guilty for taking time off when unwell, and 13% also said they were worried about being perceived as lazy for taking time off for short illnesses.

But why should businesses be concerned? At first glance, the issue of having all members of staff in the office doesn’t seem like a particularly big problem. However, coming into the office when unwell can actually do far more harm than good.

Firstly, presenteeism is a large-scale problem; a Work Foundation report found that presenteeism was actually more prevalent than sickness absence, with 45% of employees surveyed reporting one or more days of ‘sickness presence’ compared to only 18% reporting one or more days of sickness absence.

Presenteeism can also dent productivity. According to the Work Foundation, presenteeism is said to account for 1.5 times more working time lost than absenteeism – and if someone reports to work while unwell, they will not work as effectively as if they were fighting fit. According to research from business psychology company Robertson Cooper, productivity levels for employees who feel ill drops from 75% on ‘normal days’ to 55% on ‘sick days’. And it’s not just the productivity of presentees that is concerning – presenteeism can also affect the morale and productivity of healthy employees.

Having unwell employees in the office can also cause issues for other members of staff if they are suffering from a contagious illness. In some jobs, having a sick employee present can even be dangerous – if you work in a production plant, for example, having an unwell employee present could mean equipment breakage, errors in judgement and work-related accidents.

Keep an eye out for part two of our blog on how to tackle presenteeism, coming next week. In the meantime, employers and employees can call the Fit for Work advice line on 0800 623 6235 to get work and health-related advice and support, or visit

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