At a glance
  • Paul Avis of Canada Life discusses the leading causes of presenteeism
  • 90% of UK employees saying they have come into work when feeling ill
  • There is an alarming reluctance among employees to take time off for physical illnesses, with over half saying they would still come into work
12th March 2017

Presenteeism persists: nine in ten UK employees have come into work when ill

Words by Paul Avis, Marketing Director of Canada Life.
Reproduced with the permission of Canada Life.

New research from Canada Life Group Insurance has found that presenteeism is a persistent problem in the UK workforce, with 90% of UK employees saying they have come into work when feeling ill. This is virtually unchanged from 89% last year1, demonstrating employers still need to do more to resolve the issue of staff continuing to work while unwell. 

The survey found presenteeism is most commonly driven by high workloads, with more than one in four employees feeling their workload is too great to call in sick (28%). Financial concerns (21%) and feeling guilty for taking time off (17%) are also common factors.

  • Issue is driven by high workloads, financial concerns and guilt surrounding taking time off

  • Employees fear being perceived as lazy (16%) or weak (14%) for taking sick leave

  • More than two-thirds (69%) perform worse as a result of coming into work while unwell

  • Over two in five (42%) wouldn’t take time off for a stomach virus while 80% wouldn’t for stress

  • Increased job insecurity following Brexit vote could worsen presenteeism  

Employees concerned they will be viewed as lazy if they call in sick

Employees fear they will be thought of as lazy (16%), weak (14%) or inconsiderate (14%) if they take time off for illness, illustrating the need for employers to reassure staff there is nothing wrong with taking time off when genuinely unwell.  

Just 22% of respondents thought this decision would be viewed as sensible, even though coming into work when ill appears to be self-defeating: 69% of employees say they perform worse at work when ill than when they are healthy.

Presenteeism also encourages the spread of illness, further hampering productivity. Nearly three quarters (73%) of staff say they have become ill as a result of another colleague’s illness, with almost a third (32%) saying this has happened several times.

Mental health still not taken seriously

There is an alarming reluctance among employees to take time off for physical illnesses, with over half (54%) saying they would still come into work if they had the flu. More than two in five (42%) would come into work if they had a stomach virus, despite displaying symptoms of sickness and diarrhoea. Almost a quarter (23%) would only call in sick if they were hospitalised or had no other choice.

Four in five (80%) wouldn’t take time off for a stress-related illness, suggesting there is still a long way to go to counter the stigma of non-physical illnesses. Previous research from Canada Life Group Insurance found that over half (57%) of UK employees have suffered from mental health problems while in employment, highlighting the prevalence of this type of illness. More than one in ten (13%) employees also said their organisation is dismissive and doesn’t take mental health problems seriously, highlighting why staff might be reluctant to take time off for mental illness.2

Job insecurity and Brexit fallout will worsen issue of presenteeism

This issue could become more pronounced as a result of the uncertainty and insecurity following the EU referendum result. According to the CIPD, more than 1 in 5 (22%) employees, equal to 7 million people, feel less secure in their job as a result of the UK’s vote to leave the EU3. Just 3% feel more secure.

This looks set to have a worrying impact on employee health and wellbeing: a third (32%) of employees who feel less secure as a result of the EU referendum vote are more likely to come into work when ill, while 23% will work later or carry out unpaid overtime.

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

“Presenteeism is going nowhere, with nine in ten UK employees still coming into work when unwell; a figure that has hardly budged since last year. With financial pressures and excessive workloads cited as the main causes, it is clear employers need to do more to reassure their staff that health and wellbeing is a top priority.

“The vote to leave the EU has thrown everything into a state of flux, so it is little surprise that people are now more concerned about job security and more likely to come into the office even if they are unwell. Now more than ever, it is crucial for employers to demonstrate they have a clear sickness absence policy in place that will not unfairly penalise anyone who takes time off for being ill.

“It is concerning that stress and mental health issues remain so overlooked, particularly as our research shows this type of illness is more common among employees than you might expect. As with physical illness, failing to tackle mental health problems can be hugely damaging not only to the individual but to the wider business as well.”


Based on a survey of 1,006 full and part-time employees carried out in July 2016

1 Canada Life Group Insurance Presenteeism research, 2015

2 Canada Life Group Insurance research – December 2015

3 CIPD www.cipd.co.uk/pressoffice/press-releases/brexit-temp-check

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