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Updated: Feb 16

Sickness absence in the UK has reached a record low – from an average of 7.2 days in 1993 to 4.1 days in 2017 - but what does this actually mean?

Are workers getting healthier or is there a more worrying trend behind the figures?

Employers might welcome the figures but just because somebody is at their desk doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re performing at 100%

Welcome to the wonderful world of presenteeism. _______________________________________________________________________________________________ What is it? The term is also commonly used to describe the issue of employees coming into work while not physically or mentally well, instead of staying home and recuperating. _______________________________________________________________________________________________

What are the problems?

Employees’ productivity drops off significantly when they are unwell, either physically or mentally.

There’s a lack of attention and engagement which could create safety hazards and, if they have an infectious disease, they could pass it on to other employees, increasing the disruption. It would make sense for people who are sick to take time off work until they’re well again.

But what if the workplace culture is one where absence of any kind is frowned on? Where long working hours are part of the way things are done, where not being present, day in, day out counts against the employee, and leads to a perception that they must come in, even when they’re demonstrably unfit to do so?

In such a culture, the effects on productivity can be imagined. If administrative staff who are unwell handle important or high value matters for their employers, they may end up making an expensive mistake because they were not physically capable of performing the necessary security checks.

Add to this the likelihood that some of those employees will be doing safety-critical tasks such as operating heavy machinery and those effects can become a safety catastrophe.

Why does it happen?

People might come into work when sick because:

  • They’re worried about what might happen to their job if they take “too much” time off

  • They’re not going to be paid if they’re off sick

  • They fear acquiring a negative reputation, letting the team down or being branded slackers

  • A workload that’s too heavy for them and they are too afraid to inform management

What does the law say?

Under Section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, employers must ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all employees.

Psychological harm and work-related stress are counted as risks to that health, safety and welfare.

The HSE has issued guidance regarding Stress Risk Assessments and a Health and Safety Policy for the management of work-related stress.

The management standards in the guidance are:

  • Demands – workload, work patterns and the work environment

  • Control – how much say the person has in the way they do their work

  • Support – the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues

  • Relationships – promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour

  • Role – whether people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures that they do not have conflicting roles

  • Change – how organisational change (large or small) is managed and communicated in the organisation

Although this is guidance only, an employer who can show that they are following it will be better able to show that they are legally compliant.

How tough is your sickness policy?

Although many sickness policies take a compassionate line towards staff who are unwell, some are a lot tougher. Some don’t pay staff who are off sick or reward 100% attendance.

This will encourage people to attend work when they are not well enough to do so, and it may also be discriminatory towards people whose disabilities mean they are going to miss days because of this.


Disengagement is when healthy staff attend work but aren’t fully involved with their job. Every employer can probably point to an employee who is capable, skilled and ripe with potential but who is just going through the motions, watching the clock and waiting for 5pm.

Rather than seeing this as a cause for disciplinary action, employers need to seize the opportunity to discover the root cause. Are staff overworked or undervalued? Do they need new challenges?

Asking the right questions can provide real insight but it takes courage.

When does the working day end?

Some industries have working hours that extend far beyond the 9 to 5 and those who work in them will have accepted the demands of the job. However, there’s a growing phenomenon in sectors that work a more traditional 8-hour day, of work emails being sent – and replies expected - outside working hours.

The MD who seems never to sleep, firing off messages to their staff at gone midnight may be lauded in business magazines but there’s a downside to this; working abnormal or long hours has long been linked with depression, anxiety and even coronary heart disease.

Whilst the employee may not be at the office, they will still feel as if they are if they’re in work mode when they should be relaxing.

The period of recovery over the weekend or in the evenings, with a good night’s sleep, has been shown to be linked to good performance and personal mental wellbeing.

In France, a new law introduced in 2017, called "the right to disconnect", means that companies who have more than fifty workers will have to draft and implement a “charter of good conduct” that sets out the hours when emails should be neither sent nor answered.

If employees feel that they still need to be attending to work matters at 8 or 9pm, the employer needs to keep in mind that this may have implications for breaches of the Working Time Regulations.

In 2018, an executive at a meat producer in Ireland was awarded €7,500 after she was required to deal with out-of-hours work emails, including some after midnight which led to her working in excess of 48 hours a week.

It’s a good idea therefore to set out a written Email use policy what the employer expects of their staff so that employees are aware of how things will be handled.

For more guidance on this subject log on to rradarstation or contact our teams.

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