Psychologist also highlights dangers of emerging ‘leaveism’ trend 

Presenteeism is the biggest threat to UK workplace productivity, warned Professor Sir Cary Cooper in his opening keynote speech at this year’s CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition.

Drawing on research from the CIPD’s annual Absence Management Report, which this year measured the impact of presenteeism for the first time, Professor Cooper revealed that the annual cost of presenteeism is “twice that of absenteeism”.

“Nearly one third of staff persistently turn up to work ill,” he said. “Just 35 per cent are generally healthy and present.”

“Workers coming in and doing nothing is more dangerous for the UK economy than absenteeism,” he warned, highlighting that the UK ranks sixth of out the G7 nations for productivity.

Through his work at Manchester Business School, Professor Cooper has identified another worrying trend that HR professionals need to watch out for: “leaveism”.

“One of my PhD students, who works in the police force, has found high rates of people taking holidays to catch up on backlogs of work,” he said. “This is a big problem across the public sector.”

Add this trend to the fact that 25 per cent of UK workers are not taking their full annual holiday entitlement, and, he warned, there is a risk that staff are not coping with the competing demands of work and home life. This is borne out by the CIPD finding that nearly one third of parents who work more than 45 hours per week admitted to seeing their children for less than one hour per night on weekdays, he said.

“People in the UK have the longest working hours in the EU. And they are the second highest in the developing world after the US. And, when you consider that American workers get an average of 10 days holiday per year, this means we’re actually working longer hours each week than they are.”

The American-born professor – who is now a British citizen – criticised what he called a “lethal” working culture prevalent in the US. “With the rise of the contingent workforce, the UK is moving closer and closer to America,” he said. “Say we’re just off the coast of New York now: we need to row back closer to our European neighbours.

“Over 70 per cent of UK workers are putting in more than 40 hours a week, and 11 per cent work 60 hours a week or more. Compare that to Sweden, where a number of organisations are trialling six-hour work days.”

There is no research to support senior managers’ belief that working longer hours makes people more productive, said Professor Cooper. “If you consistently work long hours, you will get ill.”