Present, but not counted

Many of us feel under pressure to go to work when ill or regularly work overtime, but this is doing us more harm than good.

Iwona Tokc-Wilde, journalist

Feeling like you are coming down with a cold? Staying at home would seem sensible, but a minor ailment is often not seen as a valid reason for not turning up at the office. Rather, it’s something that people feel they are expected to put up with while getting on with their jobs.

Going into work when ill – or ‘presenteeism’ – is on the increase too. The UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development reports that it has more than tripled since 2010. Last year, an alarming 86% of British organisations observed this behaviour among their workers, compared to just 26% eight years ago.

Presenteeism also refers to employees putting in face-time by coming into work early or staying late. Often, though, they are there in body but not in mind; they are physically present, but not necessarily productive.

Why do we do this?

Some parts of Asia are notorious for their brutally long working hours. In Japan, many employees put in a staggering 80 to 100 hours of overtime each month. In Hong Kong and Malaysia, it’s not uncommon for people to clock in between 50 and 60 additional hours per month. By contrast, UK employees work ‘just’ 16 hours of overtime per month on average.

‘Presenteeism prevails in Asian societies, where hierarchy and company loyalty play a significant role and the main cause of worry and stress is the quantity of work,’ says Abigail Ireland, productivity and performance consultant.

‘In some working cultures, employees are also expected to stay at work until their bosses go home for the night, so this places an unhealthy focus on face-time and fuels the fears over job security and career progression. People have become accustomed to uncertainty and constant change since the 2008 financial crisis exacerbated this sense of insecurity.’

The expectation to work overtime is higher in some sectors than in others. In finance, it appears to come with the job. According to a recent survey, 45% of accountants feel pressure to work late. Younger accountants are even more likely to feel this way, with 58% of those aged 18 to 34 years old worrying their boss or colleagues might think they aren’t working hard enough if they leave on time.

Accountants are always thought of as being particularly hard-working too, so we work ourselves into the ground to live up to this reputation. ‘When our sense of self-worth is tied to our industry, we become motivated to work hard even through sickness,’ says performance coach Richard Harris.

Heavy workloads and job insecurity are also behind our decision to head to the office even when ill – we don’t want to fall behind and be seen as lacking commitment. And over a third of us decide to ‘soldier on’ despite our doctors’ advice to stay at home, according to research by Bupa.

Lack of adequate sick pay is another reason why some people work through their illness. While UK employees are guaranteed some statutory sick pay (SSP) from day one of their employment and it’s pretty standard for full-time employees to get contractual sick pay in excess of SSP, in some Asian and African countries sick pay depends on the length of employment. Often, there’s no sick pay or the pay is limited until people have worked in a job for at least three to six months.

Those of us who do decide to recuperate at home often stay connected to the office and work anyway. ‘With current technology, communication is instant and people can be contacted whenever, wherever, so it’s now the norm for employees to always be "on",' says Ireland.

How presenteeism affects your wellbeing

But if you work long hours day after day or battle viruses alongside deadlines, you are likely to fall ill or make your existing illness worse. Ironically, this could mean that you might have no choice but get yourself signed off work for longer than a few days.

You could even end up with some very serious long-term physical or mental health issues.

‘We live in the age of machines, but humans are not capable of functioning like robots without repercussions. Mood, mental health, the physical body and our relationships can be damaged if the body and mind aren’t given adequate opportunity to recover’

According to research from the University College London, overwork can lead to cardiovascular problems that increase the chances of a stroke five-fold. Another research suggests that we should avoid working over 39 hours a week and that working 80 hours of overtime a month is the threshold above which we actually have an increased chance of dying. In Japan, there are many documented cases of ‘karoshi’ or deaths attributed to physical or mental problems stemming from overwork.

Ireland says: ‘We live in the age of machines, but humans are not capable of functioning like robots without repercussions. Mood, mental health, the physical body and our relationships can be damaged if the body and mind aren’t given adequate opportunity to recover.’

Harris agrees: ‘It's a bit like running factory machines all day and night without any maintenance – in the long term, the factory will crash and produce next to nothing.’

Ireland also points out that when we are ill or exhausted, we generally work at reduced capacity, lack the concentration needed to effectively accomplish tasks and are more likely to make mistakes.

Obviously, if you turn up to work with something contagious, you might also pass your illness to your colleagues. No one will thank you for it and that includes your boss because this means your colleagues won’t be performing at their best either.

Break the vicious cycle

Being at work all hours definitely doesn’t equal high productivity. In fact, Japan has the lowest productivity among G7 nations, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

‘Elsewhere, too, there are many people who are putting in the hours, who appear to be very busy but who don’t produce any meaningful results,’ says Shiv Khera, business educator and author of You Can Achieve More. ‘Just being present doesn’t mean a person is being productive!’

Khera believes that everybody can easily cut down the time they spend at the office by 30% to 40%: ‘If people are efficient and effective during the day, they might not have to stay late. Yes, once in a while they might have to but, by and large, if they do an honest day’s work of eight hours and deliver results, this should be good enough.’

But what if you work for an organisation where everyone works late or where taking a sick day is frowned upon?

Ireland suggests you pluck up the courage and speak up: ‘Also, prove to your manager that you can do a stellar job without selling your soul. But if nothing changes, consider if this is something you want to be part of. You always have a choice.’

If you are struggling with too much work, flag this up too.

‘Managers are often unaware of everything on your task list. Focusing on less will give you the headspace and energy to produce quality work. This will help and not hinder your career in the long run,’ says Ireland.

Finally, improve your general health.

‘People get sick when they don't look after themselves,’ says Harris. ‘You do need to be getting enough sleep, exercise and proper nutrition.’