A report published by the Institute for Employment Studies, a well-known think tank, suggests that presenteeism, or going in to work whilst unwell, is not always as detrimental as previously thought.

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Presenteeism is unquestionably a complex issue. Levels of presenteeism are often driven by pressure from managers or colleagues; workloads; deadlines; and self-induced stress. Proposals to decrease absenteeism in the workplace may unwittingly be promoting presenteeism. This can be positive or negative depending on the situation.

The notion that workers should be completely fit and well before returning to work is fairly well established. A report, entitled ‘a review of current thinking’, however, puts forward a compelling argument surrounding the positive contribution to recovery inherent in the workplace. This can be the case for individuals who have been suffering from relatively serious illnesses as well as those with milder conditions.

The author of the report, Dr. Valerie Garrow, is quite clear in specifying that an individual should never endanger their health or the health of their colleagues by going to work. There is no denying that in many instances presenteeism can contribute to worsening health, and lead to reduced productivity. In these cases, taking time off work to recover and rest is wholly necessary.

Individuals suffering with financial difficulties, mental illnesses and those with concerns over being made redundant were found to be the most likely to continue to attend work when they were unwell. In these cases presenteeism may well have a detrimental effect, and such instances must be properly managed. Promoting a working culture where everyone is encouraged to take time off when they are genuinely unwell will protect those particularly vulnerable to presenteeism.

Dr. Garrow’s research has shown that individuals who are on the road to recovery have benefited greatly by being able to return to work on a gradual basis. The option to work fewer hours or have a condensed workload can be beneficial for both the individual and their employer. Whilst initial productivity may not be at pre-illness levels, an incremental introduction back into the workplace increases the chances of an individual making a full recovery.

Managing each specific case undoubtedly presents its own challenges for managers. Understanding what an individual is going through is essential to being able to provide helpful and appropriate work schedules. The interests of both the team as a whole and the individual must always be thoroughly evaluated.

In the current economic climate where efficiency and increased productivity are key elements to success, companies and, in turn, employees are feeling the pressure. There is evidence that highlights long term damage to productivity, health and morale that stems from presenteeism. The prevention of such damage is important for individual employees and for the company as a whole. This means establishing a healthy balance between absenteeism and presenteeism. Focusing closely on achieving a healthy and positive workplace is the key to such a balance.

There are many ingredients to achieving a healthy workplace. There must be a positive and caring management team in place that looks out for each employee’s interests as well as keeping an eye on the bigger picture. This provides job security and ensures that clear working policies are in place.

Implementing support structures, healthy working atmospheres and proper use of return to work interviews will be invaluable tools for managers in evaluating whether presenteeism is in the interests of an individual, or whether further time away from the workplace will be more beneficial.

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