The presenteeism problem: Why your staff should be taking more sick days

Phil Kendall & Anna Roberts

Jan 2021 ⋅ 8 min read

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), UK workers took just 4.2 sick days in 2019, down 41% from 1993 when staff called in sick an average of 7.2 days a year.

RotaCloud’s own data, which looks at the attendance and shift data of thousands of businesses, suggests a further fall in 2020, with the average UK employee taking just 3.4 days off due to sickness.

But what could be the cause of this shift in our attitudes towards calling in sick? Are we gradually getting healthier, or are attitudes towards sickness simply changing? And what should managers be doing in light of these eye-opening figures?

Let’s dive in.

Calling in sick

Before we look into why we in the UK might be taking increasingly fewer sick days, let’s take a closer look at the ONS’ sickness absence data.

As well as showing that we’re now taking far fewer sick days than we did in the mid-90s, the numbers tell us that:

  • Women consistently take more sick days than men
  • Public sector workers have more sick days than those in the private sector
  • As a percentage, full-time workers take fewer sick days than part-time staff
  • Minor illnesses like coughs and colds account for more than 25% of sick days
  • Staff aged 16-24 are less likely to take time off sick

Instances of sickness absence have fallen steadily right though the turn of the century and into the 2020s. 2020 itself might be a bit of an anomaly since Covid-19 has forced so many of us to work from home (more on this later), but RotaCloud’s own data — while not directly comparable — indicates that instances of employee sickness fell once again, down to just 3.4 days.

Why is this happening?

Rather than being down to any one cause, it’s far more likely that the gradual decrease we’re seeing in the number of sick days being taken is due to a multitude of factors — some good, some bad.

Let’s take a look at a few of them.

The ‘good’

It might have taken a global pandemic to bring it about, but there’s no denying that employees working from home are less likely to call in sick with the sniffles — nor will they spread them to other members of your team.

While heading into the office and potentially spreading germs is clearly a bad idea, remote-working staff may still feel able to do their job from the comfort of their own home, without compromising their recovery — or the health of their colleagues. Of course, for anything other than minor illnesses, staff should always feel able to take time off work for rest and recuperation, but the stats show us that a quarter of sick days are taken for minor ailments.

The rise in the popularity of flexible working could also partially explain why UK workers are taking so few sick days. Able to work to their own schedule, or from wherever they like, flexible workers are often in a better position to care for their mental and physical health. For example, they might work 8-4 so they can fit appointments in after work, freeing up their weekend so they have more leisure time between the working weeks.

Finally, some of this drop may be explained by the fact that we, as a population, might be getting slightly healthier — at least in terms of our physical health.

Pre-pandemic, gym membership was at an all-time high, with 1 in 7 adults holding gym memberships. Life expectancy, too, has risen by about five years since 1990. However, self-reported levels of ‘good’ or ‘very good’ health have remained stable over the same period — so we don’t feel any healthier!

These positive factors can only account for a small amount of the downward trend in sick days. Many workers simply don’t have the option of remote working or flexitime, and, whichever way you look at it, our overall health can’t have improved that significantly in the past 30 years. And we haven’t mentioned mental ill health yet — data shows that anxiety disorders and depression have risen significantly over the same period.

Unfortunately, it’s likely that there are negative reasons behind the fall in sick days...

The 'bad'

Statutory sick pay (SSP) in the UK is notoriously low compared to the rest of Europe. At just £94.25 per week, SSP under UK law is paid as a flat rate, regardless of an employee’s normal salary, and, crucially, is only paid after four consecutive days of absence due to sickness. Plenty of companies don't offer additional sick pay benefits to their employees, and they're under no legal obligation to do so.

Put simply, the reason people are taking fewer sick days may well be because they can’t afford to.

Another probable cause for the drop-off in sick days may be presenteeism.

Far less documented and discussed than its sibling, absenteeism, presenteeism is defined as employees coming into work either while sick or putting in long hours due to lack of job security. We’ve seen plenty of stories of companies actively disciplining staff for taking just a few sick days — for example, at an Amazon warehouse in Scotland, one employee was given penalty points for being hospitalised for three days with a kidney infection (one of the two points was later removed upon appeal).

With employees only gaining their full employment rights after two years of employment, they can effectively be fired without a reason — and taking one too many sick days could be all it takes for an employer to do just that.

Clearly, presenteeism is a big problem, and as well as resulting in lost productivity, can often lead to physical and mental fatigue.

Finally, it may be the case that popular absence metrics such as the Bradford Factor are simply being misused, with staff becoming overly concerned that taking the odd day here and there to recover for mild sickness could reflect badly on them due to the nature of the metric’s formula.

What should employers do?

Whatever the cause for this drop-off in sickness absence, the fact remains that we in the UK are simply not taking enough sick days.

This isn’t good for anyone — not the employees themselves, and certainly not the companies they work for.

We’re showing up to work when we’re sick, spreading our germs to our teammates, and — while we’re technically doing our jobs — we’re also working far less productively than if we’d taken a little bit of time out to get better.

We all know that absence due to sickness costs UK businesses billions of pounds a year. But, rather than being overly preoccupied with how many sick days our employees are taking or attempting to drive the numbers down further, managers should be more concerned with dealing with the underlying issues...

#1 Promote & facilitate good health

It’s not enough to simply tell your staff to look after themselves; managers need to provide their staff with the ways and means to do so.

If your business model allows, giving your staff the option to work flexibly, or at least have staggered start and finish times to choose from, will help them to achieve a better work-life balance. Studies have shown that, when they’re able to do things like take their children to school in the morning, pick them up from school, or perhaps fit in a workout in the afternoon, staff are happier, more productive, and less likely to fall ill.

Another way to promote good health is to encourage your staff to spread their annual leave right the way through the year — and to make booking holiday as quick and easy as possible. Not only will this reduce the risk of your business being understaffed as people try to cram in their remaining holidays at the end of year, but your well-rested employees will also be more productive and less likely to experience burnout.

You may also wish to enrol your team in some kind of private health insurance scheme. Here at RotaCloud, staff are signed up to Vitality health insurance by default when they join the team. In addition to providing access to private healthcare and free use of mindfulness app Headspace, Vitality encourages regular exercise by providing incentives like discounted Apple watches and Fitbit fitness trackers.

#2 Provide sick pay where possible

UK employment law doesn’t require employers to provide sick pay, but with statutory sick pay amounting to just £377 per month — far below the National Minimum Wage — it’s no wonder that so many employees should feel the need to soldier on when they’re ill.

The benefits to employers of providing sick pay are numerous:

  • Healthier staff. Without having to worry about losing a large part of their income, employees who are feeling under the weather won’t be tempted to bring their illness in with them, thus helping to maintain the health of the wider team.
  • Higher morale. Staff who receive sick pay feel more valued and respected by their employer, and as a result are more likely to come into work in a positive mindset. They’ll also stick around for longer, reducing costly turnover and recruitment.
  • Increased productivity. Sure, they might be at their desks (or on Teams/Slack if working from home), but unwell employees are rarely doing their best work. Far better to allow them time off, paid, to recover and come back fresh.

#3 Change the culture around taking sick days

In the world of business and management, there tends to be a bit of a stigma surrounding staff sickness, particularly for mental health reasons. People taking time off due to illness is a burden on others. It affects the bottom line. Even the ONS speaks of days ‘lost’ to staff taking sick leave.

But it would be better to create a culture where we think of sick leave not as a person out for the count or failing to contribute, but as a person taking action to prevent sickness, or at least lessen its impact.

Staff should be encouraged to take sick leave as and when they need it, not just as a last resort. This should be drummed into staff right from the start of their employment and included in your employee handbook.

There needs to be procedure in place, of course — staff calling in sick should contact their manager directly, and there should be a proper return to work policy in place — but your employees should feel confident that taking a sick day won’t reflect badly on them or impact their chances of progressing within the company.

Finally, it should go without saying employees who are feeling under the weather should be encouraged to go home — or stay at home if working remotely — and actively dissuaded from coming in. Sure, this will mean a slight reduction in the productivity of your team while they’re absent, but it’s better to be down one person than risk the entire team getting ill.

Final thoughts

Employee sickness has long been a difficult subject to address. All too often, however, the focus tends to be on reducing the amount of time staff take off due to sickness, with such absence being treated as something to avoid wherever possible.

With UK employees already taking so few sick days (amongst the lowest in Europe), however, the idea that managers should want to arbitrarily decrease this number even further is unhelpful, and would likely only lead to lower productivity and a working environment where staff taking time off to look after their health is a bad thing.

Instead, staff should be encouraged to look after their health from the outset, with managers leading the way and providing them with the tools and incentives to do so. By altering perceptions surrounding the taking of sick leave and taking steps to reduce presenteeism, staff are more likely to feel happy and engaged — and are less likely to become ill in the first place.