By Mike Blake, Group Director, PMI Health

Managing sickness absence has rightly become a priority for many companies over recent years. The business case for tackling the problem has been proven time and time again with the latest CIPD study revealing an annual sickness absence cost of 609 per employee.

Initiatives to curtail this cost, however, should be balanced with efforts to ensure that the growing phenomenon of presenteeism is also minimised.

Concern about excessive workloads, fear of redundancy and criticism from work colleagues can all play a part in discouraging employees to take time off when they are unwell or have been working very long hours.

A recent study commissioned by PMI Health Group revealed that more than half of UK employees feel under pressure to go back to work before they are fully recovered from sickness or injury. The top reason for this was a fear of being viewed negatively by their line manager and the impact on future job prospects.

The effect of this on business performance can be extremely damaging. According to the Work Foundation, employees going to work despite being ill or injured could be responsible for an even greater loss of productivity than sickness absence. Estimates suggest the cost to the UK economy could be in excess of £15 billion a year.

The health and wellbeing solution
Health and wellbeing initiatives can be as important for tackling presenteeism as they are incidents of sickness absence. Evidence suggests that the business cost of employees who are unproductive because they are ill or disengaged due to being overworked is certainly comparable.

Healthcare benefits such as cash plans and employee assistance programmes along with wellbeing initiatives, such as reduced-price gym memberships or cycle-to-work schemes, can protect against the effects of sickness and stress, allowing workers to focus on their jobs.

Early intervention and case management from occupational health practitioners can also have a positive impact in addressing presenteeism. HR professionals and managers however should be educated and made aware of when early intervention referrals are required.

By promoting a strong sense of employee wellbeing and improvements in employees’ personal health, companies are also positioning themselves as employers of choice – delivering the feel good factor, improving staff morale, motivation and commitment to help to boost recruitment and retention.

Culture is key
Initiatives to improve staff health and wellbeing sit at the heart of a company culture that should lead to employees prioritising a healthy lifestyle.

A range of wellbeing initiatives can help support healthcare benefit schemes in fostering this culture. Such initiatives can encompass the entire gamut from encouraging exercise and nutritional advice to the installation of teleconferencing facilities that allow staff the opportunity to work from home when required.

Although it is impossible to control what staff do when they are outside work, through education, engagement and incentives, it is possible to achieve a change in behaviour – one which results in a healthier workforce and less risk of disruption to business through either sickness absence or presenteeism.

This positive culture should be extended to reinforcing the ethos that if staff are unwell they should not be at work. Managers should insist on sending sick employees home to recuperate - without an opportunity for proper recuperation, some ailments or conditions can become far more serious problems.

Training to help them spot and deal appropriately with incidents of presenteeism can prove beneficial. Cases of mental illness are more difficult to identify than physical ailments but good management calls for meaningful dialogue with employees and an ability to detect and pre-empt any issues.

Promoting a workplace environment conducive to psychological wellbeing and reduced levels of stress should be prioritized. Studies have shown that flexible working can increase productivity and reduce stress. Companies may want to promote such arrangements wherever possible and investigate what resources they have to improve individuals’ mental resilience and coping systems.

Lead by example
Managers should also look to lead by example by not falling foul of presenteeism themselves – this can prove critical for setting the right tone of an organisation.

If absence policies, established to prevent the abuse of sick days, are overly aggressive they can unwittingly prove counter-productive to fostering a healthy workplace culture. It’s advisable to view and revise these policies, if necessary, to promote trust and to encouraging employees to take time off when they need to, without fear of it compromising their job security.

Interestingly, according to PMI Health Group’s study, females were found to be much more worried than their male counterparts about the impact of sickness absence on their career. Six out of ten women cited this as the biggest reason for returning to work before they are fully recovered from sickness or injury, compared to just 48% of men.

Women were also found to be better team players than men, with almost half (47%) believing they were failing their colleagues when off sick, in comparison to 36% of male workers.

Specialist health risk professionals will generally be best placed to advise on the most appropriate health and wellbeing benefits and strategies to minimise the risks of both presenteeism and sickness absence.