Are Your Staff Too Scared To Take Sick Days?

It’s not just employee absence that stops your staff from being productive. We look at ways you can tackle the problem of presenteeism and create better people engagement.

Just how well is your company doing today? Look around, after all, not all results can be found in a spreadsheet, that’s for sure.

If your employees seem downbeat and disheartened, it could be time to reach for the doughnuts. But if general malaise is constant in your workplace, you’re going to need something sweeter than a tray full of sugary snacks to combat it.

Fact is, you need a healthy dose of employee engagement.

If you’ve got noticeable absence in your work place, or worse, people sitting there with very obvious illnesses, it’s time to do more than reach for the tissues.


As a nation, the UK’s record for sickness is at an all-time low. But that doesn’t mean we’re getting fitter and healthier as a nation.

As any HR Manager will know, absenteeism can be a big problem. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s presenteeism you’ve really got to get a grip on.

The latest figures suggest that employees lost around 30 days to sickness or under-performance at work due to ill-health. With 3.3 of those days being spent away from work due to sickness.

The same research suggested that a further average of 27.7 days were worked by staff who felt unwell. That is, they may have turned up to work, but whether anything productive got done is unlikely.

It’s a sign that many organisations still take the view that bums on seats is more important than actual productivity. Health and wellbeing at work just isn’t high on the agenda for some firms to their detriment. 

If your employees are scared to be away from their desks, what does that say about you as an employer? If the stats are to be believed, it seems presenteeism is still rearing its ugly head across organisations everywhere.


If your place of work has a reputation for being a bit of a slave driver, you might find it tricky to recruit top talent down the line. Retaining employees is going to be top of every HR Manager’s list from now on – you don’t want to get left behind. 

As Sodexo’s recent report tells us, “67% of engaged employees are happy to act as advocates for their organisation, compared to 3% of disengaged employees.” If you prioritise staff health and wellbeing at work, you can transform your workforce into a team of relentless ambassadors for your business.

Good or bad, word gets out.

Korn Ferry Futurestep’s MD, EMEA Search, Richard Shea, says, “The demographic phenomenon of an ageing UK presents a distinct challenge for organisations seeking the best talent.”

We live in an age of disruption where jobs that didn’t exist a few years ago are being created at a rate of knots. Shea says, “What this means is there are increasing demands for new skill sets in virtually every job and profession.” Recruitment is changing and businesses need to stay ahead of the competition to be the best at what they do. 

Employers need to keep up. It’s no good behaving as if positive workplace cultures aren’t important, that’s for sure.

Just look at the back lash when a branch of Wagamama threatened staff for calling in sick over the Christmas period. It was a scalable PR disaster, but it showed that managers still have a long way to go when it comes to creating valuable employee engagement.

Hands up who wants to work there? No, we didn’t think so. 

A culture of presenteeism is a sure sign that your business has a problem.

So, what can you do to tackle the issues head on?

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First, we need to ask, why are people working when they really shouldn’t be?

Perhaps it’s because managers are quicker to react to absenteeism these days, armed with bundles of policies and training around how to spot the signs of stress and so on in the workplace.

Certainly, in recent years, absence management has become finely tuned, with most organisations implementing a policy to reduce days lost to absence. Most employers and employees alike will know how to report absences and what they need to do if someone has an extended period of leave.

You only have to look at the NHS’s high staff absence rate to see that stress-related illnesses can be the sign of an overworked and undervalued workforce. It’s no surprise they’ve taken steps to introduce staff incentives to change behaviour towards personal health. 

Many companies will even have introduced attendance incentives and rewards. They might even have a robust health and wellbeing at work policy. But more and more people who go off sick are still working from home because they can.

The rise in technology means less rest and more pressure to work when ill. It may be easy enough to respond to an email on the sofa at home, but it isn’t really fair of bosses to have expectations like this. The take out is the employee thinks, “well, I may as well go into the office if I’m working anyway”.

Ultimately, if your company culture doesn’t recognise there’s a problem with that attitude, you can’t expect staff to.

“Engagement can be distilled down to any employee who has their heart and mind in the job. This means involvement, enthusiasm and loyalty. It’s the passion and the mention focus to not just do a job, but to do an exceptional job.”


If employees are working when ill, it’s not good for anyone. An additional study by ColdZyme showed that workplace perceptions around illness are causing employees to work despite being ill, with 22% saying that calling in sick is still frowned upon where they work, and over a quarter admitting to feeling guilty for taking time off.

A culture of guilt is probably also going to nurture a culture of blame and finger pointing. Like a bad dose of flu, it can be viral and have dire results for your business. It’s thinking like this that can really flush talent retention down the toilet. 

Are you being fair to your people? We all get poorly from time to time. It’s how quickly we get over that illness and get back to work that matters.

Let’s face it, we don’t fancy catching the latest terrible strain of flu and we’re pretty sure you wouldn’t want the entire rest of your workforce to either.

While not all illnesses can be helped, sickness and absence can be an indicator of a disengaged workforce. Add to that, you might also have a sticky leadership issue too.


Poor attitudes towards employee wellbeing are not good for staff morale and certainly aren’t going to bring long term rewards to the company. It’s a signal that more businesses need to expand their thinking about what ‘engagement’ means today.

Iain Thomson, Director of Incentive and Recognition, Sodexo, says, “Engagement can be distilled down to any employee who has their heart and mind in the job. This means involvement, enthusiasm and loyalty. It’s the passion and the mention focus to not just do a job, but to do an exceptional job.”

The opposite of employee engagement is burnout. As Sodexo’s study states, burnout is defined by exhaustion, cynicism and reduced professional efficacy. These are the kinds of terms that leave HR departments quaking in their boots.

Think about it, it’s much easier to spot a disengaged employee than an engaged one.

You’ll know the signs – perhaps they’ve already had a day off this year. They’ll be the ones tipping the equilibrium of a well-balanced team who may be working hard to drive business success stories. It only takes one disgruntled employee to rock the boat before it tips over.

But not to sound too dramatic – all is not lost if you do detect a notion of apathy and disengagement. With the right strategy in place, such as an effective approach to employee wellness and motivation, you can turn a disconnected employee into an engaged one.


There are a few well known antidotes to help inspire your workforce, as well you may know.

Here’s the big one ­– who's driving this thing? Leaders need to model the values of the company culture – and that means being inspiring and helpful.

According to Sodexo’s research, employees want “people who’ll light the way, advocate a culture of constant learning and give them everything they require to do an exceptional job.” We’re hearing a lot about doing an exceptional job. But it’s true.

While you’re brushing up your leadership skills, there are a few other pills to swallow too – like establishing flexible working policies, good employee benefits (start with better holiday allowance to take the pressure off the aches and strains) and career development and training opportunities.

We also prescribe a good health and wellbeing programme pronto.

Still not convinced?

What if we told you this: “higher workplace engagement leads to 37% lower absenteeism and 41% fewer safety incidents”? Respond to your employees and they’ll respond in kind – and that’s only going to be good for business.

Once you’ve gauged the company’s temperature, you’ll have lots of options open to you to cultivate behaviour change, as any people engagement specialists will tell you. For example, you may wish to think about offering health and wellbeing at work schemes such as discounted gym memberships, cycle to work schemes or even financial wellbeing and mental health programmes.

So how about it? Start by knocking presenteeism on the head today. Get on top of your workplace engagement and it’ll be the breath of fresh air you’re looking for. Isn’t that better for everyone?

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