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Maybe you have just returned from a summer holiday and hope that your workmates haven’t completely forgotten about you in your absence. The truth is they probably have, everyone worked around the vacuum that was previously your physical presence. Everyone got on just fine without you.   

Perhaps now you need to impress everyone with your dedication and incredible work ethic. This renewed vigour will show your colleagues and bosses that you are, despite the evidence to the contrary, indispensable.

So you intend, for the next few weeks at least, to be first in the office and the last to leave. You are the best.

However, this is a terrible idea; right up there with your worst.    

Research at the Sainsbury Centre of Mental Health suggests that presenteeism – the need to be at work outside of working hours – is an even bigger problem than absenteeism. Professor Sir Cary Cooper, of Manchester University, has referred to it as the biggest threat to UK workplace productivity, costing the UK economy almost twice as much as absenteeism.

So what are the causes and consequences of this widespread practice?
For the company, presenteeism may seem beneficial. In the longer term, however, any such benefit is more than cancelled out.

Claus Hansen and Johan Andersen, from Harning Hospital in Denmark, interviewed almost 13,000 workers and they found the factors most strongly associated with presenteeism are: long working hours, a small intimate work force, and an over-commitment to work.

Over 3,800 workers were interviewed and it was found that those in the educational sector and caring professions are most at risk, particularly if staffing levels and pay are low, and if it’s difficult to find a stand-in when someone is ill. Other studies add job insecurity and lack of managerial support to the list of risk factors.

Gunnar Bergstrom and colleagues at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, interviewed more than 5,000 workers and found presenteeism (which they defined as going to work despite being ill more than five days in one year) resulted in poorer health generally, as well as a significantly increased risk of more than 30 days sick leave in future. Evangelina Demerouti at the University of Utrecht, who interviewed 258 nurses, points out that presenteeism creates a vicious circle: the more exhausted employees become, the more likely they are to try to compensate – and as a result, the more vulnerable they are to further illness.

Despite this overwhelming evidence, most companies ignore or overlook presenteeism. What could they do instead?

Managers should offer regular confidential meetings with their employees and allow them to talk freely about workload and other issues that impinge on their wellbeing. They should respond by offering practical support and suggestions.

They should offer regular seminars – as part of paid working time – when employees meet together to learn practical ways not only to manage problems such as anxiety, sleep disturbance and chronic pain, but also to learn ways to enhance general wellbeing.

Wherever possible, they should set up a “buddy system”, so each employee has someone familiar with their workload who can cover for them if they’re feeling unwell.

These practices cost money to create and maintain, but the investment will pay off handsomely. Companies that promote employee wellbeing will in the long run outperform any whose managers emphasise only productivity.  

It is important to get your work/life balance at an easily manageable level; spending too much (unrewarded) time at work only annoys your colleagues and impinges on the rest of your life.

Put your all into your stipulated work hours, always take your allotted annual holidays and never feel guilty when not in the office. If you don’t take these steps to maintain your physical and mental wellbeing; be assured, no-one else will.

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