• Nearly half of UK workers say bosses put performance ahead of health

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  • 16 May 2017
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Employees are three times more likely to go to work unwell than ‘pull a sickie’; experts warn presenteeism is a false economy

Seven in 10 (69 per cent) UK private sector employees – the equivalent of 18 million nationally – have gone to work unwell when they should have taken the day off, a report out today has revealed.

By comparison, the fourth edition of Aviva’s Working Lives report found that just a quarter (23 per cent) of employees – or around a third of the proportion confessing to heading to work unwell – had ‘pulled a sickie’ and taken a day off when they weren’t ill.

Meanwhile, almost half (43 per cent) of the 6,000 employees surveyed said their boss placed business performance ahead of their health, and 41 per cent worried about work piling up if they were off sick.

“Having employees who are unwell at work is a false economy,” said Dr Doug Wright, medical director at Aviva UK Health. “Businesses need to ensure they create a working culture where people do not feel pressured into coming to work when they are unwell, safe in the knowledge their absence can be effectively managed.”

Meanwhile, only 13 per cent of the 1,500 employers surveyed felt there has been more of a focus on employee health and wellbeing over the past year, while just over one in 10 reported an improvement in the working environment.

Charlotte Cross, director of the Better Health at Work Alliance, told People Management that the statistics flag fundamental issues with organisational culture. “A big problem with health and wellbeing provision is that it’s a lip service issue – we read and hear about these buzzwords all the time, but working it into a workplace culture takes a lot more than just awareness or even management approval,” she said.

Among the organisations surveyed by Aviva that have offered health and wellbeing benefits, more than three-quarters (77 per cent) reported a positive impact on the workforce, 41 per cent said happiness levels had increased and 30 per cent reported improved productivity.

But despite the strong business case for good health and wellbeing, Cross suggested many organisations struggle with allocating responsibility for carrying out such programmes. “The health and wellbeing of an organisation and its staff is intrinsic to organisational success, and is in many ways more than a full-time job, but a lot of organisations don’t really know who to assign with that responsibility,” Cross said.

“It can be a significant undertaking – and this isn’t just an HR issue because all sorts of roles are being given these responsibilities.

“One possible reason we aren’t seeing faster progress is not down to a lack of awareness – but feasibly that it has been tasked to someone who already has a full workload.”

The report echoes recent calls from other experts for workplace health and presenteeism to be taken more seriously. The Institute for Public Policy Research earlier this year warned that the UK must treat wellbeing in the same way as sickness absence, suggesting a new ‘fit pay’ payment be introduced to allow employees to temporarily reduce their hours – and stay in work – if they suffer from a physical or mental health condition.

According to figures from the Office for National Statistics, the average number of sick days taken annually by UK employees fell to a record low of 4.3 days in 2016 compared with 7.2 days in 1993 when tracking began.


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  • Knowing where to start can be challenging. There are lots of front-line resources out there, but often people don’t know how to access them; the reality is that it’s not an overnight thing to change an organisational culture – it may be decided at management level but both ‘buy-in’ and implementation have to be organisation wide to make an impact.