Covid-19 has killed the sick day. Previously a good indicator of whether you were fit enough to work was whether you felt able to drag yourself into the office. Now with the obstacle of the commute removed and increased fears around job security, more people are logging on when they are unwell.
Research by NTT Data found that overall employees took less time off work during the first lockdown (March – July 2020), with the number of sick notes dropping by 34 per cent compared to the 12-month average.
Presenteeism was on the increase before the pandemic. It occurs when people continue to work when their mental or physical health is affected. Studies have shown it can result in 35 days of lost work per worker every year. CIPD research suggests that while many managers are aware of the problem, few act on it.
Left unchecked, presenteeism is a serious issue which reduces productivity and can impact on wellbeing and mental health. Ignoring or hiding health issues is not a solution and can make matters worse as problems are not addressed. Often some sick leave in the short term will prevent the need for longer periods of leave in the future.
Why is presenteeism such an issue this year?
The COVID-19 pandemic seems to have made presenteeism more of a problem. The sick day has become less attractive or more unsettling. “You’re expected to be always accessible, because where else could you be?” says Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow. “There’s nowhere to go, nowhere to hide.” The blurring of work and life boundaries, anxieties over financial stability, stress and lack of sleep are main contributory factors according to research.
Five signs a sick day may be needed
Research has found that the common cold and flu affect mood, memory speed and verbal reasoning. The affects of being unwell on brain cognition are similar to those you experience when you consume alcohol or are sleep deprived. Some signs to look out for in the people you manage and yourself:
- Making more mistakes even with tasks completed regularly
- Difficulty starting and finishing work on time, making meetings and sticking to deadlines
- Working long hours without a change in work output
- Feeling unable to take the day off when obviously sick (physical signs are obviously easier to spot)
- Erratic behaviour – signs of aggression, tearfulness and low mood.
How to combat presenteeism
Since the root cause of presenteeism is complex, it needs joined-up thinking from a supportive senior leadership.
An example of this proactive approach is described by EY’s head of law Philip Godstone who describes the importance of senior leadership role-modelling in a recent interview in The Lawyer. The division has been making efforts to keep everyone involved and engaged so that they can be sure people are striking the right balance between work and home life.
He notes: “As we build a more diverse workforce, it is being able to show people more than one way of working, that it’s not all about presenteeism and long hours.”
Here are some of the areas to consider:
Review company culture
Are specific departments seeing productivity being affected? What is the company attitude towards workers who are juggling conflicting demands on their time, especially if they are the lead carer in their families? You cannot instil change in attitudes without first making sure everyone is clear about expectations, particularly when it comes to their work. Would your company benefit from being more transparent about its successes and failures when it comes to employee productivity?
Investigate flexible working arrangements
The pressures of working from home are multiple and demanding. Good managers regularly check in with their teams to see how they are coping with their workloads, and how that fits into their lives. Can start times and finish times be adjusted, for example?
Train your line managers
Managers need a mix of communication skills, and different types of support right now. Sometimes it’s about giving them guidance on how to ensure they have regular opportunities in place to check in with their team members; or equipping them to have difficult conversations with their teams – particularly if they think someone’s productivity is low or they are upsetting other team members. Other times it’s about helping them to keep their team resilient and positive at a very uncertain time. We’ve developed a suite of training opportunities specifically for hybrid and remote workers.
Develop an employee wellbeing strategy
If there’s one thing businesses need to be responding to this year, it’s how people are taking care of themselves. A wellbeing strategy is a good place to start. This can be as simple as offering guidance on screen breaks and exercise to other support around sleep, virtual boot camps, financial advice and company challenges. Make sure you involve them in any initiative and be open to ideas and suggestions. Communicate the benefits of the course and how it fits into your business’s overall plans. The fantastic thing about effective wellbeing programmes is that they benefit home-life as well as work.
Keep listening and adapting. The one thing that’s certain is the uncertainty we’re currently experiencing. Keep talking to your teams, keep coming up with ways to help and support them so that your business can remain adaptable, and ready for whatever is round the corner.