Tackling the presenteeism problem

In the pre-pandemic workplace, we can all remember a colleague turning up for work with a cough or cold, or occasionally something worse. This pressure to be physically present at work, no matter how ill or unproductive, is known as presenteeism. It’s been a persistent problem in the UK for some time and it comes with a cost. Combined with leavism (improper use of leave) and absence, it’s costing employers up to £45 billion each year.[1]

Despite the increase in homeworking and perceived flexibility brought about by the pandemic, it seems that presenteeism remains a big problem in the UK. According to our latest research, over a third of working adults have continued to work while feeling unwell in the last 18 months - rising to almost half of people in the 18-34 age group.[2]

Post-pandemic presenteeism

The pandemic has led to many more people working from home. For some, this has been positive in terms of new-found flexibility, more time with family and less commuting. Others have found the boundaries between work and home life becoming increasingly blurred, making it difficult for people to switch off or take time out when unwell. Our latest research revealed that, of those working from home, 32% feel there has been more pressure to be present at work and 22% said they’d been working longer hours.2

It’s easy to see why homeworking can worsen presenteeism. The fact that someone now doesn’t need to leave their home, can’t pass the illness onto colleagues, doesn’t need to commute – it can add to the feeling that the illness isn’t serious enough to warrant time off, regardless of how productive that person will be at work. Our latest research backed this up - the most common reason for not taking time off was thinking the illness wasn’t serious enough, reported by 50% of respondents - up from 40% last year. This was followed by workloads being too great (27%) and worries about the financial implications of taking time off (24%).

Our findings suggest that many employers haven’t taken action to tackle the risks of an ‘always-on’ culture brought about by the pandemic. Employers need to ensure their culture values the right behaviours and that managers are trained to recognise the risks of presenteeism.

Tackling presenteeism

Tackling presenteeism requires a top-down approach and a workplace culture that encourages healthy behaviours. Leaders should lead by example - once people are finished, they should log off and leave work for the day. Sometimes workers can attempt to out-do each other in terms of working late, which creates a vicious cycle. Leaders should demonstrate with their own behaviour that staying late, or being ‘always-on’, isn’t required to be successful.

Line managers play a key role when it comes to looking after employee health and wellbeing. The quality of people management can make a big difference here. Line managers should be equipped with the right training, knowledge and skills to support their team’s health and wellbeing. Managing workloads effectively and listening to employee concerns things are vital to successfully managing employee wellbeing and preventing presenteeism.

Employers should also look at their flexible working policies and review in light of the increase in homeworking. Flexible working shouldn’t mean being available 24/7. Having clear guidelines and policies in place can help set expectations and prevent people feeling pressured into being present.

Finally, employers should review their wellbeing benefits take a strategic approach to improving wellbeing. Wellbeing is now a business-critical issue and employees should have access to high-quality benefits that can support their health and wellbeing. Having access to virtual GP and mental health services can help ensure employees have immediate access to support when it’s needed, especially given the current pressures on the NHS.

UK workplaces have made significant progress in recent years to improve health and wellbeing at work, but we still have a long way to go. 2022 brings with it a fresh start and an opportunity for HR teams to implement change that improves workplace health and tackles the presenteeism problem once and for all.


Dan Crook, Protection Sales Director, Canada Life


[1] Page 5, https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/uk/Documents/consultancy/deloitte-uk-mental-health-and-employers.pdf

[2] Canada Life research carried out by Opinium among 2002 UK adults between 10-14 September 2021