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April 20, 2010

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Sickness presence could cost more than sickness absence

Employers could be underestimating the extent of their employees’ ill health and may be missing warning signals by focusing on absence alone, according to new study into why people come to work when ill.

The latest CBI AXA absence and labour turnover survey estimates the annual cost of sickness absence to be about £13bn. Yet, the cost of employees turning up to work when they are too ill could be even greater, according to the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, which calculates that sickness presenteeism could account for more than 1.5 times more working time lost than absenteeism.

To understand the issue of presenteeism better, AXA PPP commissioned in-depth research from The Work Foundation, which investigated the links between sickness presence and individual performance,

Published on 16 April, the report ‘Why do employees come to work when ill?’ found that sickness presence was more prevalent than absence – with 45 per cent reporting one or more days working when unwell – and 18 per cent reporting one or more days’ absence over the same four-week period. The study also found that those who had time off sick were more likely to work when ill.

The findings chime with a recent TUC poll, which found that around 20 per cent of public and private-sector employees had worked when ill during a recent month, with a further 36 per cent over the past year.

Lead author of the study, Katherine Ashby, said: “In the current economic climate, with high job insecurity making employees more wary of taking time off, understanding the causes and effects of sickness presence is crucial. In addition to sickness absence, measuring sickness presence may provide a more reliable picture of an organisation’s health-related productivity losses.”

Factors she identified as potential reasons for higher levels of sickness presence are:

  • lower levels of manager-assessed performance;
  • lower levels of self-reported psychological well-being;
  • higher levels of sickness absence;
  • higher levels of work-related stress;
  • experience of personal financial difficulties; and
  • higher levels of perceived pressure from managers and colleagues to work when unwell.

Added Ashby: “Evidence shows that ‘good work’, or well-designed jobs help improve motivation, job satisfaction, and productivity. We also know that the opposite can lead to reduced psychological well-being and ill health. In the same way that sickness absence can be a symptom of underlying issues, levels of sickness presence can also be an important indicator of employee health and well-being.”

She concluded: “Organisations need to be aware that low levels of sickness absence may not tell the whole story. Successfully tackling the underlying causes of sickness presenteeism could improve employee well-being and so reduce both sickness presence and sickness absence.”

‘Why do employees come to work when ill? An investigation into sickness presence in the workplace’ is available at


What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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