Woman stressed

The UK’s Damaging Presenteeism Culture

A retail company has made the headlines recently, making the case for “the dark side of the UK’s presenteeism culture.” It has been revealed that a warehouse run by Sports Direct in Derbyshire had been the subject of an unusually high amount of ambulance call outs for staff. Over two years, 80 ambulances were called for workers to the site – 36 of which were for life threatening conditions.

The findings were uncovered by a Freedom of Information request by the BBC, and symptoms recorded including chest pains, breathing problems and strokes. The ambulance service also received three calls in relation to pregnancy difficulties, and one woman even gave birth in the site’s toilets.

What do these events at a workplace tell us about UK workers? Surely many members of staff at Sports Direct had ongoing health problems, or felt forced to go into work while ill for fear of losing their jobs. The company has admitted that it has a “six strike” policy for casual staff. This means workers can be dismissed for six instances of behaviour in a six month period, including sickness, talking too much or excessive toilet breaks.

The six strike policy doesn’t sound like a 21st century modern business procedure. However, even if individuals don’t work for companies who promote such Draconian practices, they often still feel the need to go into work when they are ill. Whether there is pressure surrounding a looming deadline, you don’t want to let a team down or you think your boss won’t believe you are genuinely ill – many people still go into work when they are not well enough to perform their jobs.

The culture of “throwing a sickie” seems to have been reversed, since the recession destabilised the economy and caused job insecurity for most of the population. In fear of losing their jobs, (especially casual positions which are easily replaced) many people now feel pressured or guilty about taking time off work due to illness.

However, almost a quarter of the workforce have a longstanding illness which is likely to affect their ability to attend work. This number is also likely to increase with an ageing workforce. What can employers do to make staff feel less vulnerable if they are ill on a regular basis? Surely it makes for a more productive business to have a sick staff member’s work completed by somebody else – to a high standard – rather than paying a sick worker to do it poorly?

Think of it this way – if a worker is ill they cannot give 100% to their job duties. So it is actually more efficient and productive for the company, for anybody who is ill to stay at home. This of course doesn’t even take into account the chance of spreading a contagious illness to other colleagues and clients.

Do you have any ideas on how to address the presenteeism culture? Let us know!