The proportion of staff who come into work while ill is a staggeringly high 93%, according to recent research from Canada Life Group Insurance. This remains unchanged from 2013, demonstrating employers are still failing to address the problem of presenteeism which plagues the UK workforce.

The research also shows employees took an average of 4.4 days off sick in 2014. This is slightly higher than last year, when the average was 4.1, but still remains significantly below pre-recession levels (5.6 in 2007), and much lower than 20 years ago (approximately 7 days per employee on average, 1993 – 1996).

How ill would you have to be to call in sick?

Nearly one in ten (8%) of employees indicated they would only take a day off work if they were hospitalised or had no other choice. One in five (20%) said they would go into work with a stomach bug – up from 14% in 2013 – despite displaying symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhoea.

Worryingly, stress related illnesses are only considered by employees to be as severe as minor illnesses such as headaches. Almost one in four (23%) would take time off for a headache or migraine but only a fifth (21%) would take time off if suffering from a stress-related illness.

Presenteeism fuelled by fear and excessive workloads

Excessive workloads are a common cause of presenteeism: almost a third (29%) of employees said their workload was too great to allow for time off, even if they felt unwell.

Meanwhile, one in five employees (21%) reported coming into work while ill due to a fear of negative financial implications or redundancy. Almost a fifth (16%) are made to feel guilty by other members of staff for taking time off for illness.

As a result of this negative attitude surrounding sick leave, almost one in four (24%) employees have chosen to take annual leave when ill to avoid a poor sickness record, while an additional 12% have been tempted to do this in the past.

Effects of presenteeism on productivity

Many employees underestimate the negative impact of coming into work when ill: 73% say they have come into work when unwell because they did not think it was serious enough to warrant time off. However, more than four in five (84%) employees say that they perform worse when they are at work and unwell, with 18% saying they perform significantly worse (16% in 2013).

More than four in five (82%) employees have become ill as a result of another colleague coming into work when they are unwell (81% in 2013). 18% say this happens to them all the time, which is likely to result in a loss of productivity across several members of staff.

Lack of employer support and communication adds fuel to the fire

Almost two in five (38%) employees do not believe they have any form of workplace support to help deal with sickness absence (37% in 2013). Nearly one in ten (9%) say this is definitely not available to them (vs. 13% last year).

Many employers are also failing to communicate to their staff that they value employee health and wellbeing. Only 28% of staff believe this is the top priority in their organisation, compared to 44% who believe cost efficiency is valued more. More than a third (36%) of employees feel their output in relation to business profits is more important to their organisation than their wellbeing.

Paul Avis, Marketing Director of Canada Life Group, comments: “The persistence of presenteeism in the UK workforce is a troubling sign that employers have failed to take active steps to promote health and wellbeing in their organisation. Not only is presenteeism detrimental to the individual concerned, it has a negative impact on the wider business as well, encouraging the spread of illness and draining productivity.

“Employers must have a clear sickness absence system in place that emphasises employees will not be penalised for taking time off if they are genuinely ill. Employee benefits also help to communicate the message that employers value their staff and their wellbeing, and are clearly appreciated by employees: over a third (36%) of workers said they would like their employer to provide them with a rehabilitation programme should they fall ill. This is a proactive measure employers can take to avoid presenteeism – and reduced productivity – taking hold in their organisation.”