Paul Avis: Why employers need to identify presenteeism

Presenteeism is an ever growing issue in today’s modern workplace. How can Group Income Protection, Employee Assistance Programmes and Second Medical Opinion services help to shape the way we help our employees at work? 

Presenteeism is a stubbornly persistent trend among the UK workforce. We have been researching this topic for the past three years, revisiting the same key questions to build a longitudinal picture of trends in the UK workforce. The picture we are seeing develop is not one that fills us with confidence; in fact, we have seen no improvement across our studies. In 2016, nine in ten (90%) employees say they have come into the office while ill this year, compared to 93% in 2014 and 89% in 2015.

So why are employees so insistently eschewing their sick beds? The reasons do not come as a surprise, and they do not paint a picture of a workforce which is entirely comfortable with the connection between health and productivity. Heavy workloads (28%), financial concerns (21%) and feeling guilty for taking time off (17%) are all commonly cited. Taking time off also has negative connotations for the individuals themselves, with employees fearing they will be seen as lazy (16%), weak (14%) or inconsiderate (14%) if they take sick leave.

In fact, only one in five respondents thought the decision to stay away from the office while they are unwell would be viewed as sensible by their organisation. There are obvious productivity issues with coming to work while sick, though – 69% of employees say their performance at work is impaired when they are ill. The individual loss of productivity aside, there is also the risk of illness spreading around an organisation if a contagious colleague brings an infection to work with them. Nearly three quarters (73%) of staff say they have become unwell as a result of a colleague’s illness.

Consider that two in five (42%) employees suggested they would come into work with a stomach virus and it’s obvious that far too many organisations are cultivating an unhealthy attitude to recuperating away from the office. Why is there such a lack of empathy so widespread in the context of work?

Presenteeism is a dangerous trend for organisations. Working while ill means ‘empty’ hours are spent doing poor quality work, driving productivity down. Ultimately, the employee will reach breaking point and either leave the organisation – leading to high staff turnover, which will impact profitability given that replacing an employee costs more than £30,000 on average – or go on long-term sickness absence. This is a no less costly option for organisations. Statutory Sick Pay must be paid for up to 28 weeks, with many then offering further occupational sick pay as well. Further obligations to comply with the Equality Act 2010 await employers, who will need to proactively deal with employee absence with an eye to retaining the employee.

Group Income Protection (GIP) products take a more holistic approach to health than their historical counterparts, with a phenomenal breadth of support available to employers and their most valuable asset day in and day out. In its simplest form, GIP provides invaluable financial cover that ensures the vital costs of everyday living can still be met should an employee develop a serious illness or injury and no longer be able to work. This basic protection gives staff peace of mind and sends them the message that their employer cares about their health and wellbeing, and will support them in difficult times.

There is a persistent belief among employers that having a GIP benefit in place will somehow encourage their staff to spend months at a time off sick which is at odds to the reality of ownership and proactive case management.

Employees’ views of GIP are completely at odds with those held by their employers. For them, GIP is a way for their employer to keep tabs on them, to intrude on something as personal as their health and ensure they continue to work and contribute to the bottom line. Simply having positive health and wellbeing policies in place isn’t enough; they need to be effectively communicated to staff, so they understand they won’t be reprimanded for taking time off when they need it.

Clearly these two viewpoints are mutually exclusive – GIP cannot allow employees to coast on a sickness absence payout while simultaneously being used to harangue them back to work. What makes this situation worse is that neither accurately reflects reality. GIP providers are in a unique position to observe trends such as the troubling persistence of presenteeism, as well as understanding the value of work to health, as a growing body of evidence is demonstrating. Now, it would be naïve to suggest GIP providers operate out of charity, but there is a virtuous circle to workplace health which everyone can capitalise on. This broad view of health and productivity is embodied in the support services.

Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) – provided free alongside most GIP policies on the market these days – are a great tool. Employee literature and posters are commonly supplied as standard, plus counselling services that provide appropriate advice and support on all manner of personal issues, in absolute confidence. Nowadays, EAPs integrate online health assessments and lifestyle management tips, and may even connect with mobile apps to give employees unprecedented access to information about their health.

Second medical opinion (SMO) services report that up to half of service users have a refined or completely changed treatment path after using the service, and up to 1 in 5 have their diagnosis itself refined or even completely changed. Experience-rated and Trust-based PMI schemes are becoming increasingly popular, following the increases in Insurance Premium Tax, and this certainty is vital in that context. They are not all offered by all employers, of course, hence the introduction of services such as a Treatment Sourcing Service, which an employee can use in the knowledge they are getting a great deal, convenient for them.

The jewel in the crown of modern GIP is vocational rehabilitation. Personalised support for anyone who goes off sick, with the cost factored into the policy premium, is a step-change in employee health which has been maturing for the past ten or fifteen years. Now it is coming into its own.
Day one contact with insurers offering an Early Intervention Service (EIS) is the current goal in the market. If an employee becomes ill, employers can refer to their insurer immediately, who will step in and provide support tailored to the exact circumstances of the employee, with their wellbeing at the heart of all decisions. Having a mechanism such as this in place gives employees the confidence to take time off if they need it, while allowing employers the peace of mind that their sympathy is not being taken advantage of. Besides keeping claim incidence and premiums down, this collaborative approach can be the cultural catalyst to stem the presenteeism epidemic in the UK.

If long-term absence is unavoidable, the EIS framework can be morphed into vocational rehabilitation services, to ensure staff are given the help they need and are able to return to work as quickly as is safe and appropriate: a clear positive for employer and employee.

UK productivity lags 18 percentage points below the rest of the G7 average, showing a clear need for UK businesses to focus on facilitating an environment that creates happy, productive staff. The benefits an employer chooses to provide speak to its values and priorities. GIP, with its focus on employee health and productivity, sends a clear message that the people who support the business will be well looked after in return for their service.

There is a massive opportunity to communicate the value of GIP. As few as 17,000 companies currently offer the benefit, covering around 2.1m people, and so the opportunity cannot be understated for everyone to make the most of a healthier workforce using this product as the catalyst.

About Paul Avis

Paul Avis first joined Canada Life Group Insurance as a Sales and Marketing Director in 2009. He became Marketing Director in January 2013 in order to focus on proposition and market development initiatives. In an intermediated B2B marketing environment, the organisation is seen as a technical, thought leader in the complex arenas of employee health management and protection. Paul joined Canada Life from HR services organisation Ceridian, where he carried out the role of corporate development manager.

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