· 2 min read · Features

Presenteeism is more costly than absenteeism


The TUC estimates that 5.24 million people in the UK put in extra work worth a staggering £27 billion. This equates to each employee missing out on an average of £5,000-worth of pay per annum – a great deal of money by any standards, particularly during these difficult times.

The amount of extra time people put in at work is at the discretion of each employee; some will do it because they need extra pay and some will do it because they want to ‘get ahead’ and perceive ‘being present’ as showing commitment.

But, at a time when jobs are on the line and the threat of redundancy hangs in the air, I wonder whether employees are putting in more and more ‘face time’ to appear committed and indispensable. Surveys are certainly showing that fear of job loss is a major driver of presenteeism. So, what is presenteeism specifically?

According to recent research by my business psychology company Robertson Cooper, there are approximately four different types or presenteeism. The first group, the Fully Functioning, are healthy and rarely off ill. They are the people who are engaged, motivated and contributing fully to their job and organisation.

The second group, the Sickness Presentees, are those who turn up to work but whose health is suffering. They are so job-insecure that they come to work even when they are feeling ill, but provide very little added value. The third group, the Job Dissatisfied, are healthy but have more than average absences from work. Their work may not have damaged them directly, but they are less engaged or committed to their job, either because there is a mismatch between their personality/competences and their job or role requirements, or they are badly managed.

The fourth group is a combination of those who have a serious chronic health problem, or the job itself has damaged them: the Stressed or the Chronic Unhealthy. What is worrying about the research is that only 35% of this sample are fully functioning, while 41% are turning up to work when they are ill or job dissatisfied and being less than productive, and a proportion of the remaining 24% are probably being made ill by aspects of their work.

If the UK economy is to grow, given that we have fewer people doing more work as a result of the cuts, we will need far more than 35% of the working population to be robust, healthy and fully functioning. We need to: get to the root cause of why people are not fully engaged, overcome their fears of job insecurity and make the workplace healthier and better-managed.

Indeed, as chair of the BITC Workwell Summit on 10 May, I will be exploring these very issues with our speakers, including Dame Carol Black, Tanith Dodge, HRD of Marks & Spencer and Paul Litchfield, chief medical officer for BT Group. As the social reformer John Ruskin wrote in 1851: ‘In order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: they must be fit for it, they must not do too much of it and they must have a sense of success in it.’

Professor Cary Cooper is professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University.