• sickness2Presenteeism on the rise as 93% of UK employees surveyed have attended work when ill
    • An average of 4.1 sick days were taken in 2012
    • 36% would use annual leave when ill rather than risk poor sickness record

Presenteeism in the UK workforce is on the rise, according to recent research from Canada Life Group Insurance, with 93% of employees surveyed coming into work despite being ill. Over a third (36%) of workers are so adverse to taking sick leave that they would rather use their annual holiday allowance than suffer a poor sickness record.

Why employees cannot afford to be ill

Figures from the ONS* show that the average number of sick days has fallen every year since the 2007 recession, decreasing from 5.6 days a year in 2007 to 4.5 in 2011. Canada Life’s own research shows an average of 4.1 sick days in 2012, with male employees in particular taking fewer days off for illness (3.5 days vs. 4.4 days for women). So why are the UK’s workers so reluctant to take time off when they’re ill?


Canada Life research findings: reason for coming into work when ill All
Even though I felt unwell, I didn’t think it was serious enough to take time off 76%
My workload is too great for me to have time off, even if I’m unwell 31%
I worry about the financial implications of taking time off 20%
Other colleagues make me feel guilty for taking sick leave 19%
I feel too threatened by the risk of redundancy to take time off when ill 13%


The majority (76%) say they came into work because they didn’t think their illness was serious enough to warrant a day off. However, the pressure of a heavy workload dissuaded almost a third (31%) of workers from taking time off when they were ill, while a fifth (20%) worried about the financial implications. A similar proportion (19%) say that other colleagues such as senior members of staff made them feel guilty for taking time off and one in eight (13%) felt too threatened by the risk of redundancy.

As a result, around a quarter (26%) have used their holiday allowance whilst off sick to avoid gaining a poor official sickness record or falling foul of their employer’s sickness absence policy. An additional 10% have not done this yet but have been tempted to in the past.

The extremes of presenteeism

Employees are so reluctant to take time off that a third (33%) would still come into work if they had flu, while 14% would come into the office even if they were experiencing vomiting and diarrhoea. Over three quarters (80%) would not take time off for stress-related illnesses.

Given these statistics, it is unsurprising that 81% of employees surveyed say they have caught illnesses from other members of staff, with a fifth (20%) saying that it happens all the time. Productivity is also negatively affected; over three quarters (82%) of those who came into work when they were unwell said they feel they performed worse.

Lack of employer support

Over a third (37%) are not aware of any form of workplace support in terms of sickness absence in their organisation, while 13% say that they definitely do not have this. Of those who do know what is available in their organisation, 18% would speak to a designated member of staff to discuss their options. One in ten (10%) have a helpline or external organisation they can contact in case they become ill for an extended period of time, while only 15% had an Employee Assistance Programme available to them.

When given the choice, a rehabilitation programme (such as those available to companies with a group income protection policy) in the event of a long-term illness would provide peace of mind for almost a third of workers (29%) and would have helped almost one in ten (8%) in the past, demonstrating the value of rehabilitation consultants.

Paul Avis, Marketing Director of Canada Life Group, comments:

“It is worrying that the UK’s workers are so reluctant to take time off even when they are genuinely unwell. Anxieties about a heavy workload, risk of redundancy and criticism from other colleagues are preventing employees from taking the sick leave that they need, yet are also no doubt exacerbating certain conditions, particularly those that are stress-related.

“Employers need to do more to make their stance on sickness absence clear – the fact that 37% are not aware of any workplace support in terms of sickness absence shows that there is still some way to go in communicating the different options available to staff should they become unwell for an extended period of time. Our research demonstrates the importance of rehabilitation consultants, with almost a third (29%) saying a rehabilitation programme would provide peace of mind.

“Employees should not be discouraged from taking time off when they are genuinely unwell, as presenteeism creates not only an unpleasant working environment but also one that is counter-productive. Staff need to feel that they won’t be penalised for taking sick leave and organisations therefore should ensure they communicate their support.”
– Survey of nationally representative 1,001 people using an online research tool in March – April 2013.
– * ONS Labour Force Survey (May 2012)