In recent discussions on employee health and wellbeing, increasing attention has been paid to presenteeism. Presenteeism is the act of attending work whilst sick resulting in low worker performance and productivity. It has been estimated that the annual costs of sickness absence for UK businesses is nearly £14 billion a year and that the effects of presenteeism could cost employers two to seven times more than that of absenteeism. However, is presenteeism always a negative phenomenon causing harm to employee’s health?
Should I stay at home or go back to work? The positive aspects of presenteeism
04 August 2014
A colleague’s mother passed away suddenly. She took a couple of weeks off from work to organise her affairs and to spend time with family and friends. After two weeks she returned to work part-time. “I just sat there at my office, staring at walls or out of the window most of the time” she says. She estimates that her work productivity was one fifth of the normal. Nevertheless, the lively discussions with colleagues and the work she loved gave her comfort. She is convinced going back to work helped her get back on her feet. “I would have probably felt more unwell if I had stayed at home longer, as it would have delayed my recovery” she added. Two months after her mother’s death, she was back working full-time.
Returning to work after sickness absence - serious illness, injury or bereavement - is a critical phase; long-term sickness absence, for example, increases employee’s risk of early retirement and unemployment. There is good research evidence, however, that gradual return to work enables people on long-term sickness absence to return to work earlier and therefore supports them to remain in work life. If safety assessments are carried out properly and returning to work does not pose a risk to one’s health, encouraging the employee to return to work as soon as possible when they are ready and motivated should be encouraged. Discussion on presenteeism in its current stage supports backward thinking that no one should return to work unless they are feeling 100% well.
Nobody should, however, be forced to work when ill, but if we want to promote the thinking that “good work is good for your health”, we should rethink presenteeism and how we understand it. I believe everybody should have the right to return to work and have the appropriate support in place when they are ready to work again. Work and all the positive aspects that comes with it, is often the best therapy of all.