Digital presenteeism in the wake of Covid-19 – why it’s a problem and what employers can do

The rising culture of coming into work when unwell was a concern even before the pandemic. Now, with widespread flexible working, there is a tendency for some staff to decide to work from home on days when they are ill, rather than phoning in sick as they may have done before. Presenteeism has gone virtual. 

With mental health high on company agendas and calls for employers to have a greater focus on wellbeing, what are the key issues with digital presenteeism? And what can employers do about it?

Key issues
  • Cultural – A widespread presenteeism culture could be masking underlying issues with the working environment - unmanageable workloads, unrealistic management expectations, poor role models, or employees’ fear that they will be judged for taking time off whilst unwell. 
  • Health – Continuing to work whilst unwell may risk mental health issues or burnout. It could even prolong the illness and/ or lead to long-term sickness absence in the future. 
  • Commercial - There may also be a number of negative consequences for the business if an employee works whilst they are unwell, including decreased productivity, engagement and morale, and increased risk of making mistakes.
  • Legal – Failing to manage the underlying causes of presenteeism and the wellbeing of an employee could ultimately lead to legal claims and liability. Duties to maintain trust and confidence and take reasonable care of an employee’s health and safety are implied into all employment contracts. These could be breached by employers setting impossible deadlines or failing to adequately support employees, running the risk of constructive dismissal and breach of contract claims. The duty to take reasonable care of the safety of employees also arises in the tort of negligence. This means that if a manager knows that one of their employees is struggling but ignores the warning signs (one of which could be that they are continuing to work through their illness to cope with an excessive workload), an employer could be sued for negligence if it results in the employee suffering serious physical or mental illness. Be mindful that employees who suffer with long-term illnesses may be covered by the legal definition of ‘disability’. Providing they meet certain conditions, mental illnesses such as stress and long COVID will be covered, meaning that the individual will be protected from disability discrimination and may require reasonable adjustments, such as a reduced workload or more breaks.
How to manage presenteeism

Working from home may make it difficult to pick up if someone is working when they shouldn’t be. So how can employers tackle this?

  • Reassure staff that their wellbeing is a priority and if they are genuinely ill, they shouldn’t be working (even if it’s from under the duvet). This will help them to feel able to take time off sick if they need to.
  • Remind your workforce what your absence policies and procedures are, and ensure they are readily accessible. Supportive sickness policies which offer adequate sick pay will help to curb presenteeism caused by financial worries.  
  • Regular check-ins with staff. If employees feel that they have an open dialogue with their manager, they may be more likely to disclose any illnesses or concerns they have.
  • Focus on promoting an inclusive culture so that employees feel valued and able to speak-up about any concerns. 
  • Train managers in how they can identify signs of presenteeism and support staff’s wellbeing. They should lead by example by promoting healthy working habits and setting boundaries rather than an ‘always-on’ culture. If they are setting unrealistic targets, don’t plan effectively for sickness cover and/or don’t switch off when they themselves are unwell, staff will feel pressured to work even when they shouldn’t be. 
  • Consider introducing wellbeing initiatives. Examples include the provision of mental health days, discounts on fitness equipment or wellbeing apps, employee assistance programmes, mental health first aiders, and topical webinars and workshops.