‘Work while you’re sick’ culture becoming even more of a problem than employees taking ‘sickies’

Much has been written about the number of ‘sickies’ thrown by UK workers in recent times, but new research claims that a ‘work while you’re sick’ culture is becoming even more of a problem.

In the study of more than 1,500 managers, one-third of respondents claimed there was a culture of not taking time off when sick, while 17% feel their health is deteriorating.

The report, published by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) and Simply Health, shows that 48% of people with stomach bugs did not take sick leave, while just 9% of managers suffering from stress had time off.

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School, says the cutbacks of recent times have left the UK with a workforce that is too lean.

“There are too few people doing too much work. Almost every sector has suffered cuts and that’s had a real impact on job security. Unfortunately, being ill is now perceived as a sign of weakness.

“We should be more worried about presenteeism than sickness absence. People are turning up for work when they aren’t fit to do so and this damages productivity, morale and other people’s health,” he says.

Damage done

Jo Causon, a director at the CMI, says that many organisations don’t realise how much damage is being done by employees who come into work when they are sick.

“Most managers want to do a good job and will soldier on to make sure things get done. But there’s clearly a culture that needs to be changed into something more positive. Rather than focusing too heavily on sickness days lost, employers should focus on the workplace environment and how they can make it better,” she says.

Cooper, an expert on stress, helped write the report and thinks people are frightened to take time off sick because they believe that absence will count against them in the next round of cuts.

He warns that constant change was having a negative impact on the workforce and employers were managing sickness and stress in the wrong way. He says that directors did not understand the negative impact that top-down initiatives can have.

“There’s a real disconnect between directors and the rest of the workforce. Employers are doing the wrong things. Absence management looks to be a positive HR practice on the surface, but in some ways it can really put pressure on staff to return to work too early,” he says.

Outdated techniques

More worrying, the study also shows that most managers are still clinging to outdated and regressive techniques, with the most common management styles bureaucratic (40%), reactive (37%) and authoritarian (30%).

“We found there were more sick days for these types of management styles. Managers are not coping with the demands on them because these demands are so great,” Cooper says.

The evidence shows that authoritarian managers have a negative impact on all aspects of job satisfaction, motivation, sickness absence and productivity levels.

Health doesn’t seem to be at the top of the corporate agenda, with only around half of the managers questioned believing their organisation is committed to employee wellbeing.

This lack of commitment could be exacerbating the problem, with the study proving that employers can manage the sickness problem if they use the right mix of interventions.

The most popular types of health benefits include: flexible working (61%), progressive return to work after absence (58%), and counselling (57%).

Improving motivation

Des Benjamin, chief executive of Simply Health, says that employers should concentrate on the benefits of improving motivation rather than focusing too hard on reducing sickness absence days.

“Too many organisations make changes or force behaviours on narrow definitions of cost. They fail to reflect on the impact unsophisticated reporting of employee health levels can have on performance,” he says.

The report makes a number of recommendations, including better management techniques, more sophisticated sickness reporting, increased use of health initiatives, and calls on directors to reconnect with frontline managers.

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