What employers can do to tackle presenteeism amid Coronavirus outbreak

by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District
by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District

In the last decade, presenteeism – the act of working when you shouldn’t be – has tripled in the UK with more than 4 in 5 people observing it compared to just a quarter in 2010. As coronavirus (Covid-19) continues to spread, both within the UK and globally, employers should be discouraging, and tackling, ‘presenteeism’ amid government warnings around social distancing and self-isolation.

With business practices, and management, being put to the test, Instant Offices delves into the reality of presenteeism and what businesses can do to help keep employees safe during a pandemic.

A continuing global issue

Numerous countries have now gone into ‘lockdown’ discouraging travel in or out of the country. In the UK, it has recently been advised that everyone should avoid “non-essential” travel.

Previously, 1 in 5 people ignored their doctor’s advice to stay home when unwell, and studies indicate that doing so can not only reduce productivity by over 30%, but cost a company £4,000 in lost business, on average per employee.

Nonetheless, UK employees displaying little-to-no cold/flu-like symptoms continue to go into work, despite warnings from the government about doing so.

Businesses are unprepared for a pandemic

WHO officials warned that the world is dangerously unprepared for a pandemic, and this is reflected within businesses where less than 1 in 10 businesses had policies in place to cover ‘What to do in a pandemic’. To make matters worse, research shows a third of UK workers would lie about exhibiting symptoms of Covid-19.

Precautionary measures such as thorough regular deep cleaning and increased use of tools that help manage remote working are just two ways businesses are attempting to deal with the sudden outbreak. However, many lack the infrastructure that allows their company to run remotely.

What Drives Presenteeism?

Although figures from the ONS indicate, in the past 25 years, sickness absence has steadily decreased, the pressure to turn up at work at all costs has significantly increased presenteeism, which results in a toxic workplace culture in which no one wins.

A report on presenteeism by Employment Studies found some of the leading causes include:

Manager Behaviour – Due to a sense of responsibility, managers can also be presenteeism culprits, unknowingly putting pressure on employees to act the same way.

Concern for Colleagues – Studies show employees are likely to go to work ill to avoid a colleague dealing with an additional workload or pressure, especially in situations where there is no replacement.

Company Culture – Studies have found perfect attendance to be seen as a sign of commitment to a job, while taking time off sick is seen as a sign of under-performance, particularly in the private sector; a work ethic can be unknowingly perpetuated in an organisation by senior managers and long-time employees.

Job Stress – When it comes to stress and presenteeism, the correlation between the two is high, and employees who feel unsure about their job security are more likely to show up when ill.

Combating presenteeism during a pandemic

As with anything new and unknown, there is a level of uncertainty that comes with a pandemic. Keep an eye on the news and reiterate decisions that could affect their job/ability to work as quickly as possible to reassure people.

Ensure employees know that they are able to work from home

Although it may not be possible for all roles and industries, companies where staff are able to carry out tasks out the office, should let employees know this is something they can do as soon as possible. Taking time to implement policies that allows staff to work remotely can help ‘keep the lights on’ during times where getting to the office is not possible. Have a test day where all employees work from home to see if this is viable, or if a skeleton-crew approach is better, and what aspects need to be invested in during a pandemic/outbreak.

Encourage regular breaks                                                                                            

Working from home is completely different to working in an office or coworking space, and it could be ‘easier’ for members of staff to forget breaks, or take shorter ones, or even work over hours. Encourage regular breaks employees to help maintain a sense of ‘normality’, control and work-life balance and ensure everyone is logging off at the end of the working day.

Create and adapt policies so employees know key information

Make sure there is a policy in place about working from home as well as one that doesn’t disrupt employees’ pay when working from home and self- isolating. Should the worst happen make sure members of staff are aware of their options and where to find crucial information and contact details.

If employees need/want to come in to work during a pandemic, put together rules and regulations to ensure that employees are monitored and tested regularly to restrict in-office infections and further outbreak. A staggered shift approach can help create a skeleton crew in the office to ensure things tick over while also reducing the risk coming into contact with many people.

Encourage senior members to lead by example

By managing their own absence and presence and encouraging a healthy work-life balance, line managers and senior members of staff can act as better role models for the organisation, inspiring their teams to do the same. While self-isolating is crucial during an outbreak, ensure employees are remaining indoors to rest and recover, in doing so helping prevent other members of staff from getting sick.


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