What is Sickness Presenteeism? What are the Implications?

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What is Sickness Presenteeism? What are the Implications?

The dramatic rise in working from home as a result of the pandemic looks likely to become a permanent feature for many organisations, at least for part of the week. But while this brings many benefits to both employees and employers, it’s also likely to lead to an increase in working while ill. In the long term, this is not good for employees’ health and will require companies to actively encourage their employees to take time off when ill.

Working from home allows employees to balance caring responsibilities and other non-work commitments with work demands, as well as reducing commute times and decreasing job-related stress. The benefits to organisations include increased productivity and a greater flexibility from employees to meet employer needs such as conference calls outside core office hours.

Employees who work from home also tend to take fewer sick days than those who are office based. Many actually appreciate the ability to work from home while ill, as it allows them to keep on top of their workload, while avoiding the strain of commuting to the office or working a full day. It also prevents workers spreading contagious illnesses to their colleagues – something at the forefront of everyone’s minds at the moment.

So working with a mild illness is not necessarily a bad thing. Known as “sickness presenteeism”, the decision is influenced by a number of factors. These include your company’s sickness absence policies (and how they are applied by managers), the employee’s financial pressures, whether there is paid sick leave, high workloads, tight deadlines and job insecurity.

Voluntary sickness presenteeism can have other positive benefits. If an employee has a chronic or long-term condition and wants to work despite their illness, supportive working arrangements such as flexible working or homeworking can help employees stay in the workforce and aids retention for the employer.

But if employees feel pressured to go to work despite being ill, research suggests it can have negative consequences for both the employee and the company.

A number of longitudinal studies, where researchers collected data from the same workers over a period of time,  found that working while sick can increase the risks of poor health in the future. It also increased the risk of workers having to take more time off due to sickness 18 months later.

Sickness presenteeism also has consequences for mental health. Research shows that if someone had worked while ill in the previous three months, their psychological well-being had been negatively affected. Some employees also felt down or irritable or found it hard to make decisions.

For some, this lasted another two months. Meanwhile, other research has found that working whilst sick increased the risk of depression two years later, even though the workers were not depressed at the first measurement point.

Role of the Employer

Companies generally want to keep employee absence due to sickness as low as possible, as obviously there is a knock-on effect on productivity, efficiencies and profit. Presenteeism (where the employee turns up but is not fully functioning – due to illness or other reasons) is often viewed positively if the alternative is sick leave, as employees will get some work done and their role will not need to be covered by co-workers.

Working at home makes it harder for managers to determine when employees are ill – so they are less likely to tell people to take sick leave. In order to keep sick employees from working, companies need to actively encourage employees to take time away from work.

As an employer, we also have a responsibility to ensure that genuinely ill employees are NOT attending work (wherever that work is) as there may be insurance implications – so this must also be considered when dealing with ‘vague, mild illnesses’. With any serious illness, it is very important that the employer ensures that the employee is not working.

A recent study found that workers diagnosed with acute respiratory illness or influenza during the 2017-18 influenza season were more likely to carry on working if they could work from home than those without the option. Perhaps not surprisingly, workers who received paid leave worked fewer days while ill.

A key aspect of research into sickness presenteeism is that often the seriousness of the illness is unknown. In many cases, employees can still work with minor illnesses (such as colds etc.) and it will not harm their health in the long term. But workers and employers need to be aware of the potential health risk of working through health conditions that require rest and time to recover.

Companies who concentrate on controlling sickness absence in the short term may be encouraging sickness presenteeism in the longer term and risk prolonging an illness or making a health condition worse. Just because we can work from home when we are ill, it doesn’t always mean that we should.

Key takeaways for employers:

Encourage employees to take the necessary time off when ill.   If an employee takes the decision to work from home while ill, check in with them to ensure they are not putting undue strain or pressure on themselves and make sure there is flexibility with their work schedules and deadlines.

Lead by example – managers in particular should show that it is acceptable to take the needed time off to recuperate from illness.


Need more help? Voltedge Management team can help you to get advice on all aspects of human resources and management. Email Ingrid at info@voltedge.ie or ring our offices at 01 525 2914.