When a person falls ill, it’s an inconvenience for everyone in their office. Employers lose one of their valued members of staff, while the employee has to deal with being unwell for what could potentially be several days.

A new report, the latest in a long line of studies about work absences, has shed more light on how UK employees respond when they wake up feeling under the weather. It found that 69% of those working in the private sector have still gone to work despite being ill. That equates to 18 million people in the country, and it’s a great deal larger than the 23% of employees who have faked an illness in the past just to take a day off work.

Presenteeism in the UK has been gradually increasing over time and can be attributed to the stress and pressure of a higher workload that faces anyone spending time away from the office. 41% of respondents in Aviva’s Working Lives report said that their work would pile up if they had any time off, with 42% also admitting that their job often leaves them feeling stressed or anxious. This can create a negative cycle, because stress weakens the immune system and makes people more at risk from illness, which in turn creates more stress over missing work.

Employees are essentially stuck between a rock and a hard place, with presenteeism and absenteeism both generally viewed negatively by employers. They can’t take a day off work without having the authenticity of their illness questioned and fearing falling behind in their work. However, if they do go in then their productivity suffers and they may end up prolonging their illness or exposing their colleagues to the germs.

Medical Director at Aviva UK Health Dr Dough Wright says that:

“Businesses need to ensure they create a working culture whereby people do not feel pressurised into coming to work when they are unwell, safe in the knowledge their absence can be effectively managed.

“Presenteeism, driven in part by an increased ‘always-on’ culture, poses a genuine threat to overall business performance through the adverse impact on productivity and morale in the workplace. Businesses should ensure they take the lead on communicating proactively to employees that it’s important to take a step back when unwell and it can be in everyone’s interest.”

When employers invest in the health and wellbeing of their staff, the whole office benefits and the likelihood of illness-related absences is reduced. Longer days do not necessarily result in more work getting done; they just mean that workers face greater stress in the office which translates to worse mental and physical health. If steps are taken to remove the pressure on employees’ shoulders over their workload then this rise in presenteeism will almost definitely take a hit.

James Darvill

James is a passionate scriptwriter and reluctant poet with a talent for the dystopian. When he’s not staying up late watching the Simpsons he’s beating the world at Mario Kart, always with a glass of wine in hand.
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