Author Mark Richards

Far from pulling a sickie workers in the UK are far more likely to go to work when they are ill: bit is this necessarily a good thing? And what does it mean for the world of work in the future?

According to a recent report, workers in the UK are three times more likely to go into work when they are ill than they are to submit to pulling a sickie. The report – carried out by Aviva UK Health – found that 69% of the people surveyed said they worked when they were unwell, fearing a ‘mountain of work’ when they returned after taking time off.

In stark contrast to pulling a sickie

…Although we may need to sound a note of caution here: very few people are going to say, ‘No, I am a wimp. I go home as soon as I sneeze.’ Maybe we should praise the honesty of the 23% of respondents who cheerfully admitted to pulling a sickie when they are perfectly healthy.

The survey came after official figures showed that fewer days were lost to sickness last year than in any year on record. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said sickness absence accounted for 137m days last year – equal to 4.3 days per worker. This compares to 7.2 days per worker in 1993 when records began. The TUC praised those who bravely staggered into work, labelling them ‘mucus troopers.’

I apologise: that is not an image you might want if you are eating your breakfast…

So the Aviva report backs up the idea that staff struggle into work when they are ill: but is encouraging staff to come in when they are ill – or creating a culture where they feel they have to – really just false economy for employers?

“Businesses need to ensure they create a working culture where people do not feel pressured into coming into work if they are ill. They need to know their absence can be effectively managed,”

said Dr Doug Wright, medical director at Aviva UK Health.

“Presenteeism poses a genuine threat to overall business performance by having an adverse impact on productivity and morale in the workplace.”

In simple terms, people who are ill do not work effectively and there is a good chance of them infecting the rest of the office.

That’s what the good doctor means by ‘presenteeism’ – people present at work when they really should be in bed with a bucket on standby. Presenteeism also manifests itself in employees working more hours than are required. What motivates people to do this? See the comment above re a ‘mountain of work:’ or it could be the even more basic fear of job insecurity.

Working when you are ill clearly cannot be good for other people in the office and – as countless studies and articles demonstrate – working longer does not mean getting more done. If you are trying to solve a problem at work ‘throwing hours at it’ is almost never a long-term solution.

Do longer hours really work?

Here come the Mucus Troopers

The US is famous for its ‘long hours’ culture: working 9 to 5, taking breaks and not working at the weekend is seen as a sign of weakness. Yet the US is fifth in the ‘world productivity league table’ behind Luxembourg, Belgium and Norway and just in front of Denmark – all countries that have a significantly shorter working week. The UK, despite a longer working week than those countries, is 15th in the table.

This culture of work, however ill you are was never more evident than in the US Presidential election last year when Hillary Clinton was diagnosed with pneumonia. Anyone who saw her collapsing at Ground Zero could see she was ill. She’d been advised to rest in bed but was concerned that news of her illness would be seen as weakness. Some even praised her ‘strength’ for continuing to campaign whilst ill.

Would staying in bed that day have made the difference in the election? Probably not, but that clear evidence of her ill-health certainly didn’t help her cause.

Mental health in the workplace

Two weeks ago it was mental health awareness week: worryingly, a recent survey for BBC 5 Live found that half of us would still be reluctant to speak up at work if we had – or thought we were heading for – a mental health problem. ComRes surveyed 1,104 adults on the BBC’s behalf, with 49% of those responding saying that they would feel unable to tell their boss about problems such as anxiety or depression. Even fewer – just one person in three – said they’d be happy to tell colleagues. It is now estimated that one in four of us will suffer some form of mental health problem every year.

For employers and HR departments it is a potentially enormous problem. Companies want to hire and retain the best people – but they need those people to be working efficiently, effectively and happily.

Company initiatives in the future

It, therefore, seems safe to predict that many companies will be introducing ‘wellness’ programmes in the months and years ahead – if they have not done so already. These will range from ‘stop smoking’ packages to health screenings and exercise programmes. There is also a growing trend – especially among larger employers – to introduce ‘employee assistance’ programmes, including confidential counselling for stress and mental health problems, and comprehensive support for any employees returning to work after a long illness.

One company near us has even started giving employees an extra hour for lunch through the week – on the condition that the hour is spent doing physical exercise. It is easy to be cynical and say that an hour will not make much difference – but it is enough time to walk two miles a week, and the company is betting that their employees will feel so much better from the two miles that they will soon be walking in their own time and doing five or ten miles.

Employers cannot get everyone fit: but they can definitely give them a kick-start – and gain a healthier and more productive workforce, hopefully ending the need for the mucus troopers to drag themselves into work and reducing the number of people pulling a sickie when otherwise healthy.