Sick days falling, but at what cost, as new report shows rise in presenteeism

The fourth edition of the Aviva Working Lives Report, released today, shows shockingly that seven in ten UK employees – equivalent to 18 million nationally – have gone to work unwell when they should have taken the day off.


staff sickness absence

In contrast, less than a quarter (23%) say they have taken a day off work sick when they were not actually unwell, indicating that UK employees are three times more likely to go to work unwell than they are to ‘pull a sickie’.

The report – which examines the attitudes and experiences of employers and employees on issues affecting the present and future of the UK workplace – also carries a wake-up call to businesses, as more than two in five (43%) employees feel their employer puts the results of the company ahead of their health and wellbeing.



Widespread ‘presenteeism’ as average sick days fall

In what may be a surprise to employers, Aviva’s findings suggest private sector workers are fearful of heavy workloads if they take time off, as more than two in five (41%) say their work will pile up if they are off sick. With people continuing to work while they are unwell, it is likely that they are less productive as a consequence and in turn could also affect the health of other employees.

The worrying trend comes against the backdrop of a historic fall in the average number of sick days taken annually by UK employees, dropping to a record low of 4.3 days in 2016 compared with 7.2 days in 1993 when tracking began.


Absence management specialist Adrian Lewis ‘disappointed, but not surprised’

Absence Management specialist Adrian Lewis of Activ Absence said he was disappointed, but not surprised by today’s Aviva report:

“It seems that presenteeism and absenteeism are complete opposites, but in my experience, they both arise from poor absence management practices.  Almost as soon as UK employers started to focus on the cost of absence, the knee-jerk response was to assume ‘everyone is an absentee’ and scare sick people back to work – which just swaps absence challenges for productivity challenges.


“Tackling absence is not about waving a big stick and chasing ‘lazy’ employees back to work, it is about uncovering the root causes of absence and working with your people in order to tackle them.  Using absence management software alongside best HR practices is the only way to do this, it ensures that employers can manage absence effectively with an evidence-led approach to both staff management and wellness initiatives.   Hopefully today’s report will send those managers who simply ‘toughened up’ back to the drawing board.” 


Minority of employers give increased attention to health and wellbeing

The report findings highlight that only 13% of employers feel there has been more of a focus on employee health and wellbeing over the past year, while just over one in ten (12%) feel there has been an improvement in the working environment over the past year, with employees seeming healthier and happier.

Such views chime with employees’ own assessment of their situation: more than two in five (42%) admit they often feel stressed or anxious at work, rising to 46% among younger workers (18-34 year olds). Employers could also be underestimating the impact stress has on their employees, as only 23% cite this as an issue. Instead, employers view coping with workload (32%) and dealing with change (24%) as greater challenges faced by their employees.


Investing in health and wellbeing pays off

 However, Aviva’s findings also suggest that those businesses who do invest in their employees’ health and wellbeing are reaping the rewards. Of those that offer health and wellbeing benefits, more than three in four (77%) believe this has had a positive impact on the workforce. Employers also report increased happiness levels (41%) among employees with improved morale (32%) and productivity (30%) as a result of having initiatives in place to keep employees healthy.

Furthermore, in a sign of potential changes afoot, two in three (65%) businesses think the workforce will work more flexibly in five years’ time. Notably, of the 64% of businesses who currently offer flexible working, almost seven in ten (68%) said their employees were happier as a consequence.


Adrian Lewis added:

“The range of affordable HR software on the market right now offers employers more opportunities than ever before to manage perceived benefits like home working and deliver structured wellness & benefits programmes that will have a real impact on both productivity and sickness absence.  The technology, the tools and the evidence is available, we just need to encourage more employers to use it!”


Dr Doug Wright, Medical Director, Aviva UK Health, said:

“While every business wants the right level of resource in place, having employees who are unwell at work is a false economy. Businesses need to ensure they create a working culture whereby people do not feel pressurised into coming to work when they are unwell, safe in the knowledge their absence can be effectively managed.


“Presenteeism, driven in part by an increased ‘always-on’ culture, poses a genuine threat to overall business performance through the adverse impact on productivity and morale in the workplace. Businesses should ensure they take the lead on communicating proactively to employees that it’s important to take a step back when unwell and it can be in everyone’s interest.


“Businesses can also counter such issues by ensuring they continue to explore new ways in which to improve the working experience for employees. Investment in health and wellbeing is no longer a nice to have; it must be looked on as a priority.”

To view the full Aviva Working Lives Report 2017, please click here.

Author: Editorial Team

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