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COVID-19: workers feel the pressure of presenteeism despite rise in flexible working

4 min read | 11 November, 2020 By Nick Hardy


Earlier in 2020 – just before the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic- we published the second edition of our Culture Economy Report. This was based on research we conducted to examine small business leaders’ attitudes to company culture, and the extent to which this had a positive impact on employees, their wellbeing (mental and physical) and their performance.

At the time of publication, little did we know that we were on the verge of a pandemic which would lead to an overhaul in the workplace with increased pressure on employers and employees to remain productive while facing extraordinary levels of strain and pressure.

Now, a new global study from the ADP Research Institute reveals that workers are feeling compelled to demonstrate availability to employers in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. This is despite a rise in flexible working, with the percentage of organisations who have official flexible working policies nearly doubling compared to before the pandemic.

The high cost of presenteeism

Increased pressure on employees

What are the effects of presenteeism?

The importance of company culture

Ten practical steps for reducing presenteeism

The high cost of presenteeism

In our 2020 Culture Economy Report, we highlighted what we called the toxic triplets of absenteeism, presenteeism and leaveism in relation to health and wellbeing and the cost to businesses these cause as a result of reduced productivity.

Our research underlined the fact that presenteeism – which can be defined as when employees attend work while ill – is a major issue which pre-COVID was already endemic. At the time, Deloitte estimated that presenteeism is costing UK businesses between £17-26 billion a year, and the cost of poor mental health in the workplace to be £33-£42 billion.

Increased pressure on employees

The new report from the ADP Research Institute revealed that more than half (54%) of employees globally have felt pressure from their employer to come into work at some point during the pandemic, even though officials recommend or require non-essential workers to stay at home.

Although the proportion of respondents who report feeling pushed to be physically present in the workplace was highest at the start of the crisis, nearly one in five workers in the UK (16%) continue to feel that way.

The ADP Workforce View 2020 Volume Two post-COVID-19 report surveyed 11,000 workers across the world to explore how the pandemic and its impact have influenced employees’ attitudes towards the current world of work, and what they expect and hope for from the workplace of the future.

Pressure to come into work is strongest among young people. Over three-fifths of 18-to-24-year-olds worldwide (62%) say they have felt that they were expected to come in, compared to a quarter of over 55s (25%), the least pressured age group.

What are the effects of presenteeism?

The employee with a virus may well contaminate your whole workforce. The team member who has lost their enjoyment in the role may lower morale. The employee who stays late may make bad decisions. All these examples can have knock-on effects of reduced productivity at a time when employee performance is so critical to coming through the crisis and business survival.

It’s a fact that employees are much more ineffective when they are physically or mentally unwell or have lost the will to work. Their impaired performance and judgment could lead to mistakes, bad decisions and inefficiency, which cause financial loss, upset and bad feeling and cost time and money to fix.

The importance of company culture

Although many employees feel incredible loyalty to their employers and want to do everything they can at a time when businesses are so vulnerable, it’s important that they are supported and feel comfortable taking time off to recuperate when they are unwell. Yes, this may mean time off but it means they come back to work far more energised than if they felt obliged to work throughout a period of illness.

Although revenue generation is – completely understandably- the main focus for businesses at the moment, putting people first and making changes to company cultures where presenteeism is commonplace will pay dividends. Many smaller businesses are far more agile than larger companies and can make changes relatively quickly.

Think how quickly businesses adapted to online and flexible working when the first lockdown measures were announced by the government.

Ten practical steps for reducing presenteeism

In terms of practical steps business leaders can take to reduce presenteeism (in addition to absenteeism and leaveism), here are some ideas:

  1. Review historic health and sickness records as they relate to roles and teams across the business (not specific individuals) - identifying any gaps, hotspots or other patterns.
  2. Consult all staff as to what they would like to see from an in-house Health & Wellbeing (HWB) programme – from cycle-to-work support to vegan lunches or mindfulness classes.
  3. Find an appropriate, inclusive, means to grow awareness and understanding of mental health issues including emphasising the importance of taking time out when required.
  4. Ensure all leaders and managers are on-board with the programme and fully understand the dynamics and impact of presenteeism – set the standard from the top.
  5. Create an accountable and diverse team to take ownership of technology adoption and implementation decisions including new working processes across the business.
  6. Consult on what shared experiences would be most welcome across the business – from regular staff meetings to early finishes, new approaches to Christmas celebrations and more.
  7. Develop mechanisms to sustain a constant conversation about the line between negative and positive stress across the organisation – including in-the-moment feedback.
  8. Celebrate and reward individual and teams’ successes, create moments all can share.
  9. Encourage individuals to promote their own hobbies and interests to colleagues with a view to creating a range of groups and activities, from books to film and art or sports.
  10. Establish a program of online events that bring people together socially and encourage them to be mutually supportive of each other.
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Posted on 11 November, 2020

By Nick Hardy

in COVID-19

Tag COVID-19

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