Soldiering on through illness: does it do anyone any good?

Poor mental health is a major cause of presenteeism, which employers can take positive steps to prevent.

Jon Blackburn, Aviva Health & Protection Propositions Development Manager, considers the real cost of presenteeism to employers and employees alike.

Traditionally, anyone wanting to illustrate the impact of illness on the workplace would simply cite figures on absenteeism. But to fully appreciate the size of the problem, there’s another ‘ism’ we need to consider – presenteeism.

In recent years, employers have started to recognise the damage to morale and performance which occurs when employees soldier on at work when they really aren’t fit to. Known as presenteeism, this issue has been estimated to have a financial impact of up to £26 billion per year in the UK 1

Aviva’s sponsored Money & Mental Health 2018 report surveyed people who had taken time off for mental health reasons in the previous five years. 94% said they'd been into work at least once when they really should have taken time off. 2

Poor mental health is a major cause of presenteeism, albeit one which employers can take positive steps to prevent. To do this, we first need to be able to recognise it.  Everyone within the workplace has a role to play in creating a culture where colleagues feel comfortable to speak out when they’re feeling anxious or low, knowing that they will find the support they need to get back on track. 

We’ll know we’ve achieved this when we routinely hear employees discussing their mental state, just as they might complain about flu symptoms, stomach pain, or a sore back.  

Now we know what presenteeism is, how can we prevent it?

Combatting the issue of presenteeism is about much more than simply telling a suffering colleague to take some time off.  We need to improve recognition of the early signs of mental health issues and then provide the right support. Get this right, and we can prevent both absenteeism and presenteeism. 

Training for managers is essential.  Knowing how to support staff with mental health concerns comes through experience and specific training.  Not everyone needs to take time off, in fact many employees’ recovery depends on their ability to remain at work.  Managers need to know when and how to provide support, which services to signpost, how to make reasonable adjustments to enable the individual to remain at work, when to recommend time off work… and how to facilitate team support and morale. 

This is a lot to think about, but managers aren’t short of places to turn for support.  Organisations such as Mind, City Mental Health Alliance, and Mental Health First Aid England have all made great strides in raising awareness and implementing training to improve our communication around mental health in the workplace.

You are not alone

Many employers are now offering training on mindfulness and personal resilience to their employees.  Mental health first aiders, wellbeing champions and mental health allies all provide essential avenues for employees to discuss their mental wellbeing and access impartial support. A growing number of resources are available to help with early intervention, including app-based mental health checkers and online talking therapies.  In addition, Employee Assistance Programmes and Health & Protection insurance products can provide immediate access to more intensive talking therapies, helping employees to find end-to-end support before there’s a significant impact on their ability to perform their role at work – or at home.  Your workplace benefits provider should be able to help you access all these sources of assistance.

So, employees shouldn’t have to soldier on when they’re not well. And equally, employers don’t need to grin and bear it when their businesses are clearly suffering from the problems that presenteeism causes. Help is available, and we need to get used to taking advantage of it.

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