Presenteeism at work is a major issue for UK businesses. In this article, we uncover the costs, explore the challenges, and discuss what managers can do at work to help.

Think of presenteeism as the opposite to absenteeism. That is, being sick but in work, rather than off work.

The size of the problem

The Thriving at Work Report (Farmer and Stevenson, 2017) estimates the cost of poor mental health for UK businesses to be somewhere between £33 billion and £42 billion. That’s £1300 per employee per year due to lost productivity, increased absence and increased employee turnover.

You might think the largest cost comes from absenteeism or employee turnover. But you would be wrong. Absenteeism and employee turnover are significant. Each costs UK businesses £8 billion every year. The greatest cost to business — up to £26 billion — comes from losses in productivity. People present at work, but not in good mental health.

The relationship between presenteeism and health

Staff who are ill and should take time off but continue to work are presentees. Presentees desperately want to work hard. They don’t want to be lazy. They don’t want to be not being able to cope. So, each day, no matter their physical or mental health, they drag themselves into work. Great, right? You’ve not lost a member of staff for the day. What a fantastic employee – it’s business as usual thanks to their dedication!

But there’s a problem. And it’s obvious when you stop and think about it.

Just how productive do you think a member of staff can be if they’re unwell? Can you really assume that a person with the flu will perform the same as when they are well? Definitely not. Maybe for a short time they will be able to keep on top of things, but it won’t be long before their work starts to slip. They might deny the issue, but as their manager, you’d be best insisting they recover and come back better in a few days. Keep them at work, and you’ll soon be dealing with a landslide of problems that they cannot help causing because they’re unable to focus.

Look at the continuum of mental health and the stress curve to see how performance decreases when people are struggling or under too much pressure.

Presenteeism and mental health is a bigger problem than physical health

Some people will become presentees when they have a physical illness. We’ve all witnessed the office martyr who soldiers on when they have a cold or comes back in too soon after an operation. That’s presenteeism in action for a physical condition.

However, it’s not too embarrassing to ask for time off with a physical illness. After all, everyone gets sick at some point and we can all empathise with having the flu or a stomach upset. Calling in sick with the flu is not seen as abnormal or weird. Granted, we might not enjoy having to call in sick, but for a physical illness like the flu it’s not too much of a big deal.

The issue with presentees and mental health is stigma. And the stigma around mental health in the workplace is costing businesses dearly.

Stigma, presenteeism and mental health

Stigma greatly affects presenteeism. Just like physical illnesses, everyone is susceptible to mental health conditions — see our blog on the continuum of mental health. However, talking about their mental health is something  that scares many people. This is because up until very recently, society has seen mental health conditions as shameful and a sign of weakness. We’re living with a dark legacy that means that those dealing with mental health conditions not only have to manage the condition, but also attempt to disguise it from others.

As you would imagine, there’s a cost to this culture of silence. Up to £26 billion.

That’s £26 billion lost through employees unwilling to take time off for a mental health condition. Instead, as with a physical illness, they turn up, tune out and become less and less productive.

Despite a number of high-profile public figures ‘coming out’ about their mental health disorders, a stigma definitely still exists in the workplace. Research has found that only 1 in 10 employees would talk about a mental health condition with their line manager. Worryingly, only 24% of managers had received any form of mental health training (Business in the Community. Mental Health at Work Report 2017). This culture of silence drives up the cost of poor mental health because issues that could be dealt with remain hidden.

Employees worry that they will suffer discrimination or just be seen as ‘different’ if they discuss an issue they are having. As a result, many employees try to hide the fact they are stressed or are dealing with a mental health condition. And this leads directly to another cost of poor mental health.

The human cost of presenteeism and mental health

Although the financial cost of presenteeism and mental health to business is staggering, the human cost is more worrying. 1 in 4 people will deal with a mental health condition at some point in their lives (NHS, 2014). Yet 57% of people would not disclose a mental health condition to anyone at all. Not to friends, not to family, not to anyone.

As a result, the human cost of poor mental health is reflected in shocking statistics. Somewhere in the world, a suicide takes place every 40 seconds. And for every completed suicide, there are 25 attempts. Suicide is the leading cause of death for both men and women under 35 in the UK.

If these statistics on suicide are surprising, it goes to show how little we are talking about this issue. The stigma surrounding mental health increases the human cost.

Whilst managers at work cannot be expected to fix everything in one fell swoop, they can play a huge part in raising awareness and breaking down stigma in an organisation. We spend a great deal of our lives at work, and knowing it is a supportive environment where we can comfortably talk about our health when we need to, both physical and mental, makes a huge difference to how well we can cope with what life has to throw at us.

Investing in mental health pays off

At first glance, investing in mental health might not appear the best way to spend your budget. Actually, that couldn’t be further from the truth. When Deloitte (2017) analysed 23 companies that had done exactly this, the results showed a consistently positive return. For every £1.00 spent on mental health interventions on staff, companies saw a return of £4.00 on average.

But that’s just an average. Companies investing in proactive support like mental health workshops, and health and wellbeing coaching saw a maximum return of 6:1. If they invested in cultural change and raising awareness, they saw a maximum of 8:1. It’s easy to see why there are so many financial benefits once we consider the cost of losing valuable employees. Recruiting, onboarding and training new people takes time, energy and money.

One study found that it takes two years before new members of staff are fully productive. And don’t forget all that lost productivity due to presenteeism and poor mental health.

So it makes complete financial sense to focus on retaining staff and keeping them healthy by focussing on wellbeing. FTSE 100 companies who do this return up to three times more profit than those who don’t.

Learn more about presenteeism and mental health

If you’d like to learn more about presenteeism and mental health, you can get started with our Mental Health for Manager’s online course.

Delphis also offers workshops and webinars delivered and developed by highly educated business managers, academics and teachers. We guide companies along the path to creating mentally healthy, productive and rewarding working environments for their staff. The financial argument is compelling and caring for your employees is the right thing to do.

One major multi-national client says this about our workshops:

“Very relevant and informative with an engaging and inclusive style. Worth spending a whole day on. Loved the takeaway workbook, pretty much perfect, we  need to roll out to whole company.”

Get in touch to discuss how we can provide customised mental health training for your organisation that fits your needs.