How Can Presenteeism be Avoided in the Public Sector?

We’ve all had those days where we’ve struggled into work when we’re clearly not well.

Maybe you’ve had to complete a time-critical proposal, your team has been short staffed or perhaps it was ‘just a cold’? Regardless of the reason, working whilst unwell is not uncommon… and it appears to be on the rise.

According to a 2018 survey by CIPD, the number of people going to work whilst they’re unwell has more than tripled since 2010. 

Of the 1,000 people they surveyed, 86% of them had witnessed presenteeism in their business, compared to just 26% in their 2010 survey.  This is clearly a worrying trend and one which doesn’t seem to be tackled, either. In fact, the same survey discovered that only 25% of employees who had experienced presenteeism believed their organisations were taking steps to help reduce it.

The thing with presenteeism is that it’s often overlooked or even completely missed – which would go some way to explaining those figures.

Think about it: if you have people in work every day, not taking sick leave and non-existent staff absence rates, that surely indicates a productive and happy workforce, right? Well, no. It can actually be symptomatic of a more deep-rooted problem with your organisation’s culture…


Just because people turn up to work like clockwork every day, it isn’t necessarily a good thing. Presenteeism can be just as harmful to an organisation as its’ close relative, absenteeism; but aside from the obvious differences, presenteeism can sometimes be a lot harder to avoid.

According to Jack Skeen, author of the bookThe Circle Blueprint: Decoding the Conscious and Unconscious Factors that Determine Your Success”, workplace cultures that frown upon absence or put pressure on their staff to be ‘always on, always in’ are the ones that can be the most damaging, stating:

"The workplaces that make it the most difficult for workers to use vacation days or call in sick are the workplaces that will be the most likely to have poorly motivated staff. They come in resentful, overworked and completely unmotivated, whereas offices that encourage a strong work/life balance will have content and energetic workers."

And he’s not wrong! For private businesses, an unmotivated, disengaged and always-present workforce can – amongst other things - lead to a fall in productivity, quality of workmanship or service – all undoubtedly bad things. However, for public sector organisations, the consequences can be far more damaging.

Employees who work in pubic sector jobs are often at the sharp end providing services we all depend on. Be it policing the streets, educating the next generations or ensuring our wellbeing; when those who are there to look out for us are not 100%, the effects can be far more damaging than a sub-standard sales presentation…

That’s why combating presenteeism in the public sector is so important. Like any sector, when employees turn up for work not at their best, they simply won’t be as effective at their own job. Not only that, people who make the effort to work when sick are also likely to infect those around them, too – including colleagues, clients or members of the public.

In public sector occupations such as nursing or social services, an unwell or infected employee who comes to work ill with a minor ailment (such as a heavy cold) can spell catastrophe - compromising basic health safety and possibly spreading their illness far and wide.

Clearly, presenteeism is something that needs to be clamped down on; but how can it be reduced and avoided in public sector roles when the services provided are often of a critical nature? Well, here’s some tips to get you started…


Knowing the signs of entrenched presenteeism in your organisation is vital to curing it. Your leaders and managers should get to know the signs of poor workforce health and wellbeing and feel confident of the support they’ll have in remedying it.

However, whilst spotting the signs of someone who is physically unwell can for the most part be fairly obvious, identifying the warning signs of mental stress or illness can be a lot harder. Undertaking workplace training and raising awareness of common mental and physical health issues will help make this easier and, it will also help reduce the stigma of poor mental and physical health.

Encouraging people to get a better understanding of positive mental health and physical wellbeing is a foundation to healthy workplace cultures; so, taking time to learn about the symptoms is often as important – if perhaps more so – as the remedies themselves!


The pressure to come into work when you’re unwell can perhaps be the biggest cause of presenteeism. In fact, we’d guarantee that you or a colleague has turned up coughing, sneezing and spluttering but has been adamant they can ‘soldier on’ regardless, right?

In some organisations, employees who come to work when they’re unwell are viewed as dedicated, and if this view is held by leaders or encouraged within the organisation, it can become part of the culture to ‘soldier on’ through illness.

Remember that quote from Jack Skeen we mentioned earlier? Whilst it may seem like dedication to the cause, feeling real or imagined pressure to come to work when you’re ill seriously impacts employee morale and can damage positive working environments. It also has a negative impact on physical and mental wellbeing, too.

To prevent this, make it clear that your organisation expects employees who are ill to stay home and recover if they’re unwell. And most importantly, make it clear that when people are off ill, they’re not working!

If your employees insist on carrying on with their duties, encourage them to work from home whenever possible. This means that the chances of them spreading any illness they have to the larger workforce are reduced, but they can still pick up messages, calls or be a part of any critical projects.


Of course, every organisation needs to have some sort of absence policy that supports and manages employees when they’re unwell. However, if your policies are too narrow in their focus or just concentrate on the amount of sick leave taken by employees, it may not be painting a true picture of the health of your workplace.

It may also be the case that your sick leave policies are actually doing more harm than good – especially if they’re restrictive or discourage staff from taking time off. If your employees have perhaps used their allocation of sick days but are still experiencing illness, presenteeism may start to set in.

In tandem with any review you undertake, ensure that your department and line managers fully understand the relationship between absenteeism and presenteeism. It’s also important to communicate that adopting a more flexible approach to absence may be required in specific instances – after all, everyone is different and may have their own set of unique health challenges to overcome.


Employees who are on the front line of public services may feel the adverse effects of presenteeism more than others.

When employees continually make it into work when unwell, morale within the whole business can become tainted. It’s simple to understand why, too: you don’t feel great when you’re physically or mentally unwell, so having the added pressure of work can simply compound any issues you’re having even further!

One way to boost flagging employee morale is to provide some degree of flexibility in employees' working arrangements. This is especially true if you have staff who spend a great deal of time not just doing their work, but also travelling or taking on additional responsibilities.

Helping employees have more time to themselves can often be a priceless benefit – especially if they have a family or young children. It also encourages a healthier work-life balance; which is another crucial part of positive health and wellbeing.


Lastly, think about your organisation’s own health and wellbeing programme: is it proving effective with your employees or is it not fit for purpose? If you’re experiencing high rates of absence or unusually high rates of presenteeism, you may already have the answer!

Adopting a strategic programme that covers the social, physical, mental and financial wellbeing  of your people can go a heck of a long way to towards reducing the impact of both presenteeism and absenteeism.

Programmes that encourage physical exercise, offer dedicated counselling or professional financial advice can all play their part in preventing illnesses and reducing the impact of long-term conditions.

After all, the healthier, happier and more confident your employees are, the less likely they’ll be to develop or suffer from mental or physical health conditions that can stunt the productivity or your organisation.

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