Coronavirus: Why employers should be tackling presenteeism

The pandemic could have a long-term indirect effect on health, research has suggested. Image: Shutterstock

As the Covid-19 coronavirus continues to spread rapidly, with almost 400 cases and six deaths reported in the UK so far, employers should be discouraging ‘presenteeism’ now more than ever, writes Helen Hughes.

While the spread of the new coronavirus continues to gain pace, with more people being diagnosed each day, businesses and their management practices are really being put to the test. Helping to prevent the spread of Covid-19 is clashing with some workplace behaviours that are often ingrained into the way businesses operate. The one that poses the most risk to the health of employees and businesses at the moment is ‘presenteeism’, when employees continue to work despite being unwell, but how can employers ensure that undue risks are not being taken?

It is now more important than ever to protect employee wellbeing and safeguard business productivity as far as possible. Sick, or potentially sick, employees who are still attempting to make it into work, can have catastrophic consequences. While it can exacerbate the spread of germs at the most basic level, presenteeism has the ability to wipe out entire teams and cause long-term problems.

With scientists racing to develop a vaccine for Covid-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends “everyday preventive actions” are used to help limit the spread of respiratory diseases, including staying at home when sick. It is also being advised by some healthcare professionals that working from home, or even self-isolating as a precautionary measure when returning from abroad, is sensible.

‘Presenteeism’ is not a new phenomenon, however it has certainly become more noticeable in recent years and at times like this, it is more dangerous. Whether it is employees continuing to come to work when they are sick or staying at work longer than their specified working hours, the root of the problem is often caused by an outdated office culture.

The ‘always-on’ nature of the digital working environment, combined with fears over employer perceptions, performance-related targets and pay, and reduced job security, all have a part to play. In many workplaces this leads to employees feeling the need to ‘prove themselves’ to management by showing face.

Whilst the implications of presenteeism are becoming more widely recognised, employers should take this opportunity to rid this out-of-date practice for good. Coronavirus aside, employers should regularly review workplace policies to check they support employees when they are unwell and discourage presenteeism. This has to start by encouraging open communication between employees, line managers and decision-makers.

If an employee is ill due to coronavirus, then it is currently recommended that normal sick pay policy and procedures should apply. These should reflect the emergency legislation released by the government at the start of March which enables statutory sick pay (SSP) to be calculated from the first day off work, rather than the fourth. This is likely to be a temporary measure while dealing with the coronavirus epidemic and is not expected to remain.

That said, during this period, the extension to SSP entitlement will not just apply to coronavirus illness but will equally apply to other illnesses or reasons of incapacity for work. Having policies and procedures in place is one thing, but ensuring they are implemented properly is the main challenge.

Reinforcing the message that there will be no punishments for taking days off and emphasising that reducing fellow co-workers’ exposure to risk, is a preferable approach. Ensuring that all employees know the exact procedure to follow should they fall ill should also be a top priority. Line managers must also be alive to the signs of presenteeism and encourage a culture of trust and openness.

Considering alternative ways of working, such as working from home, is a good option, although it may not be applicable to all job roles. For many businesses, working remotely is an effective way of controlling the potential spread of Covid-19 quite easily. Moreover, having the digital infrastructure in place before an outbreak occurs, can ensure that the ability to work from home is less arduous for IT and HR teams.

By encouraging an open door policy and communicating with employees in an empathetic manner, employers have the opportunity to improve both internal morale and the external reputation of the business – after all, a watertight absence policy, flexible management, and a healthy workplace culture can form the ultimate tonic, ensuring the issue of presenteeism doesn’t turn into an epidemic.

Helen Hughes

About Helen Hughes

Helen Hughes is an employment specialist at law firm,Shakespeare Martineau.
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