When it comes to company culture, the phrase “work hard, play hard” has enjoyed a lot of mileage in the past. “Playing hard” usually refers to the staff socialising that’s become part and parcel of working for most corporations – bonding days, charity events and the infamous Christmas party. Although this prescribed socialising might be good for getting to know our fellow employees (and for company PR opportunities), it might not be the kind of downtime we really need.
ONS (Office of National Statistics) reports show that sickness absence totalled 137 million working days in 2017, the equivalent of 4.3 days per worker. Although this is the lowest level on record, what’s interesting is the serious problem that lies behind the statistics. “Presenteeism” refers to when employees are at work, but not operating at optimum levels. With sickness records influencing everything from hiring choices to staff pay rises, there’s increased pressure for employees to turn-up to the office even when they’re feeling unwell, or if a doctor signs them off.
The CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) said more than 83% of employers had observed presenteeism in their organisation, and 25% said the problem had worsened since the previous year. In fact, a number of studies have all reached the same conclusion, that presenteeism is a clear and accelerating trend. What’s more, presenteeism has a knock-on effect that creates long-term problems. Instead of recovering from illnesses, employees are simply burning out. The office environment, with its germ-spreading aircon and sedentary hours spent looking at a computer screen, does more to worsen the problem than it does to aid recuperation. This vicious circle puts employees under increasing strain, often resulting in stress, depression and anxiety.
In 2017 Theresa May commissioned a report called “Thriving at Work: a review of mental health and employers”. It found that 300,000 people with long-term mental health conditions leave work each year. The loss to the economy is estimated to be up to £99 billion a year, including lost productivity, cost of providing benefits and healthcare costs. The growing amount of mental illness in the UK also indicates a clear link between physical and mental health, with one directly impacting the other. For example, continuous stress can result in conditions such as IBS and insomnia, which can lead to reduced immunity and exhaustion.
Officially, employees are able to self-certify sickness for up to seven days. For longer periods and statutory sick pay claims a doctor’s note is needed. In reality, the differing levels of tolerance and understanding surrounding wellbeing mean that many employees are reluctant to disclose information to HR for fear that it will have repercussions. Mental health issues, in particular, still carry the risk of stigma, especially when cases of workplace harassment, discrimination and bulling are on the rise. Despite national campaigns surrounding mental health, many companies still take the attitude that employees should “grin and bear it” or practice professional discretion, despite the obvious difficulty this might pose for someone experiencing serious mental distress.
In addition to presenteeism, there’s evidence of other workplace trends that could be having an adverse impact on our health. The CIPD found that high numbers of staff are willing to work while on holiday, while a recruitment industry study found that the average lunch break in Britain lasts just 31 minutes, with many employees eating at their desks. Although in many cases this is down to personal choice, the reasoning behind these trends is telling. One in four people said that they take a shorter lunch break out of fear of falling behind in their work, while one in five said they felt they had to work through lunch because everyone else did. For many, working through lunch is simply a way to claw back some time from an increasingly long working day so that they can go home a little earlier.
Neither of these trends points to true workplace flexibility, because the truth is that we work too much, and because of this, we work less productively. The ability to take time to recuperate and to relax away from the working environment is essential for our health. Workplaces that adopt practices to help their employees perform at optimum levels know that ultimately this makes good business sense. Not only will they stand to dramatically reduce financial loss from reduced productivity and sickness pay, they are also enabling their employees’ “higher functioning” capabilities, such as creativity, problem solving and innovation, in a market where these are some of the most valuable assets a company can have.
Relaxation and sleep quality are shown to have an astonishing impact on our mental and physical performance. Public Health England says that downtime during the working day can help employees switch off and get better quality sleep; their official health guidance suggests that employers should give staff places to rest at work to help boost productivity. In addition to this, some companies such as PwC are running in-house health programmes on resilience. Instead of the “work hard, play hard” mantra, which, lets face it, is starting to sound as tired as everyone feels, in 2019 companies should be encouraging their employees to “work well, then rest.”
In addition to the usual stresses of work, the contracting sector is facing a particularly challenging time as new tax legislation places many at risk of getting caught by IR35 or the unscrupulous schemes that claim to get round it. We’re advising contractors to prepare for the changes and avoid the risks, read our article on how to do this here.
If you’re looking for competitive contracts or permanent work, speak to a member of our recruitment team on: 0800 971 7070Tags: Absence, Mental Health, Presenteeism, Work/Life Balance, Workplace Culture