Fewer workplace absences, more sick workers, more trouble for employers

Economic woes have contributed to businesses’ cutting back on workers and asking those who did not lose their jobs to take on more responsibility. Excessive workloads are top drivers of stress – on multiple continents. Stress can breed sickness, but sickness does not automatically translate to sick days anymore.

Around the globe, workers continue to clock in while sick. For some, playing through pain comes from a sense of obligation. But others are doing it out of a sense of insecurity.

“This issue is increasingly visible in the workplace,” researchers at human resources consultant Towers Watson wrote in a survey of North American workers. “As a common example, employees who should be focusing on recovery from illness or injury might return to work before they fully recover because they fear losing their jobs.”

Increasingly, employees in the UK are cutting back on calling in sick for work for the same reason. Absenteeism in the UK dropped by an average of about one day per employee per year, but “presenteeism” is rising, according to the 13th annual Absence Management survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) and British insurer Simplyhealth.

A sick workplace is a more anxious workplace, and sick and anxious workers are less productive. Presenteeism, the act of showing up to work but not being productive, has many negative effects, including slower recovery time, a greater chance of negatively affecting other employees, or risking more serious poor health, according to Towers Watson.

Companies that fail to emphasise at-work wellness, a broad topic that includes telling sick employees to stay home, are shown to have higher health-care costs and lower productivity.

As companies announce layoffs, or fear of layoffs permeates the culture of a company, workers think that showing up to work, even when sick, will make them less likely to be let go.

“Employees struggle into work”

“Continuing economic uncertainty and fears over job security appear to be taking (a) toll on employees,” Dr. Jill Miller, research adviser at CIPD, said in a press release. “We are seeing employees struggle into work to demonstrate their commitment, suggesting presenteeism can be a sign of anxiety. Failing to address employees’ concerns is likely to confound the issue, impact on morale and commitment and may cause or exacerbate stress or mental health problems.”

The average level of employee absence fell from 7.7 days a year in 2011 to 6.8 days this year. In the public sector, the number of absences per employee fell to the lowest level in ten years, according to the CIPD survey. The fall in absence levels is counteracted by one-third of employers reporting an increase in the number of employees going to work ill. Organisations expecting layoffs in the next six months are more likely to see sick employees at work.

“Such ‘presenteeism’ can have a damaging effect on organisations’ productivity, not only if illness is transmitted to other colleagues, but also because ill employees are likely to work less effectively than usual (and) may be more prone to costly mistakes,” the survey says.

Stress-related absence appears to be on the rise. Forty per cent of employers report a rise, and just 10% report a decrease, in long-term absences tied to stress. Since 2009, the number of employers reporting long-term absences related to mental health problems has doubled, from 21% to 44%.

Top stresses

The debt crisis in Europe has led many companies to cut jobs. In the UK, where economic sentiment in a CGMA survey rose slightly in the third quarter of 2012, the most common cause of workplace stress in the CIPD survey is a heavy workload, likely caused by a thinning of the ranks.

Despite a rise in stress-related workplace absences, 31% of respondents reported that their companies were not taking steps to reduce stress. However, the number of companies with a “well-being strategy” has increased, from 55% in 2012 from just 33% in 2009.

“This means that there is focus on doing what’s best for employees and improving business health,” Helen Dickinson, people director of Simplyhealth, said in the press release. “The vital role of line managers within wellbeing strategies cannot be disputed. Early detection of health issues and ensuring the correct support is in place helps people with health problems stay in or return to work.”

Poor health – and its impact on productivity – costs the US economy $576 billion per year, according to a study by the Integrated Benefits Institute. Of that amount, 39% ($227 billion) was lost productivity in part because of sick employees working at less than their peak.

“Employers can save an average of $3 for every $1 they invest in improving their workers’ health,” Sean Nicholson, a Cornell University researcher, said in a press release for the IBI study. “So there are opportunities for companies to increase profits and wages while they improve worker health.”

Related CGMA Magazine content:

Low wages, annoying co-workers stress out workers”: Seventy-three per cent of US workers are stressed by at least one thing, and most often that stressor was low wages, according to a survey of nearly 900 adults by Harris Interactive.

At work, engagement is lacking; so is meaning”: Employee engagement is on the decline, but one expert on retention and rewards has tips for companies to keep employees interested in their jobs. No. 1: Provide meaningful work.

Neil Amato ( is a CGMA Magazine senior editor.