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The pressing problem of pandemic presenteeism

By: Natalie Rogers, Chief People Officer at Unum

Even with Freedom Day granted and most COVID-19 restrictions lifted,[1] the reality is that many workers may never return to the office full time. However, hybrid or remote working isn’t without risks. Almost half (46%) of employees surveyed by The Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM) said they felt more pressure to be ‘present’ since working from home; 24% felt the need to prove they were working every day.

As a result, more than one third of employees have continued working at kitchen tables, in spare rooms and other makeshift offices even when unwell, often due to fears about being singled out for redundancy if they aren’t seen as productive.

What’s the problem?

Presenteeism, where employees feel they must work despite only being able to perform at a lower capacity due to ill health, was a problem before the pandemic.  In 2019, 80% of employees still worked whilst unwell. Understandably, employees cannot perform their best whilst battling illness or injury. Presenteeism therefore comes at a cost — more than £15 billion annually.

However, the pandemic kicked presenteeism into an even higher gear. With commutes consisting of just a few steps from bed to home office, it’s perhaps no surprise that:

  • 40% of employees went to work whilst sick during lockdown because they didn’t feel their illness was serious enough to take a day off
  • 20% of employees did so because colleagues/senior staff would make them feel guilty for having time off.

This, too, comes at a cost — this time, to employees’ mental health.

More than half (56%) of adults said that their mental health had deteriorated since lockdown.[7] For some, this became diagnosable depression. Almost one fifth of adults are reporting some form of depression since the pandemic — more than double the previous rate amongst the population.

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A report released in January 2020 put the cost of poor mental health amongst employees at between £33 billion and £42 billion per year for employers.[9] Yet with the above figures indicating a huge rise in mental health concerns since the outbreak of the pandemic, this figure may well be far higher if the report covered a period marked by the pandemic and its related lockdowns.

Ongoing risks of hybrid working

If hybrid working means employees spend less time in the office, employers could find it more difficult to spot problems such as workplace stress early and act to prevent a larger issue. It will therefore be even more important to have a strong mental health and wellbeing policy in place.

Early intervention truly is key for employees’ wellbeing. Any Unum Group Income Protection customer who spots an employee struggling can refer them for a Wellbeing Check. This offers 1-2-1 support from expert Vocational Rehabilitation & Wellbeing Consultants, who’ll help the employee identify self-management techniques that can help improve their wellbeing.

Natalie Rogers, Chief People Officer at Unum commented: “The pressure employees feel to always be online and contactable remains for many entering a hybrid working environment, whether they are on their lunch break or on annual leave. This is a real issue for maintaining staff morale and can lead to burnout. The hybrid model is a natural evolution for the workplace, but the basics need to be in place to protect both the employee and the employer. Simple things such as worrying if others judge you for your response time, or how long you stay online after working hours, can cause anxiety for many.

“As we move forward, it will be paramount for companies to ensure their benefits and general wellbeing approach are ready to meet the highs and lows of the world of hybrid work. Doing so will be vitally important for both the success of the business and employees’ mental health and productivity.”

Whatever approach you take and whichever resources you use to integrate wellbeing into your workplace, the key takeaway is that proactivity and early intervention are key.

Despite the challenges of doing so in a hybrid working world (which is why support from a suite of resources such as those Unum offers can be so valuable), spotting the signs of a struggling employee and intervening early remains the best way to prevent presenteeism and absenteeism. By the time an employee becomes ill enough to take their first sick day, the impact on both themselves and the business is already too great.

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