Within the past few months, the UK has experienced a huge and necessary rise in remote working. This radical shift had many employers expecting a dramatic loss in productivity. As time has gone on, however, we are seeing a great deal of positive feedback from businesses as they experience new benefits from remote working.
Along with these unexpected benefits, though, have come new and emerging management issues – such as how to manage presenteeism within a workforce that has become much more remote and reliant upon digital communication.
Here we will look at how the shift to remote working has affected presenteeism levels (with a rise in ‘e-presenteeism’) and how to manage this effectively.
What is presenteeism?
In a nutshell, presenteeism occurs when an employee is working in a situation where they should not be. Presenteeism can take several forms, including:
- Employees working when they are too sick to do so.
- Employees often staying at work longer than they need to, beyond their paid hours.
- Employees regularly responding to communications (emails, messages) outside of working hours (this is referred to as technological presenteeism).
- Employees who turn up to work but are unengaged and unmotivated.
It’s a pressing issue for workplaces – according to the CIPD, presenteeism has more than tripled since 2010; 86% of 1,000 surveyed businesses observed presenteeism in their organisation within a 12 month period.
Why is presenteeism a problem?
On the surface, some of these behaviours may not seem problematic, but presenteeism is an issue that can be just as damaging for a business as absenteeism, due to staff stress and burnout leading to more sickness and absenteeism issues later down the line.
The rise of e-presenteeism during lockdown
Multiple studies have found that presenteeism has risen rapidly since lockdown began and more people have been working from home. Given its remote and digital nature, the phenomenon has been dubbed ‘e-presenteeism’.
Research from the Mental Health Foundation and LinkedIn found that a majority of HR managers think the mass shift to remote working during lockdown has encouraged e-presenteeism – and that this has the potential to negatively impact employee mental health and increase burnout over time. LinkedIn also surveyed employees and found that, on average, remote workers have been doing an extra 28 hours of monthly overtime since lockdown commenced.
Another survey conducted by Canada Life in May found that more than 1 in 3 employees have continued to work whilst sick during lockdown because they feared the repercussions of taking time off – citing that they thought their sickness wasn’t serious enough for time off or heavy workloads stopping them from taking sick leave. The survey also found that employees were working longer hours with staff taking fewer breaks or, in 10% of cases, not taking breaks at all.
Why is e-presenteeism on the rise?
Many employees who have made a sudden shift to working from home have never done so before – and the line between their work and home environments has become fundamentally blurred. This is especially true for employees who don’t have the space for a separate work environment, instead working from spaces where they also eat, sleep, and relax. This can make it more difficult for employees to keep distinct working hours and fully switch off in their downtime.
Feelings of job insecurity may also be fuelling a rise in e-presenteeism. According to the Mental Health Foundation’s ongoing research project Coronavirus: Mental Health in the Pandemic:
More than one third (34 per cent) of UK adults in full-time work are concerned about losing their jobs (source).
In general, a lack of financial security can be hugely stressful for people as they feel a lack of control over their finances and circumstances. The furlough scheme has also brought on stress, as furloughed staff fear they will be made redundant once the scheme rolls back. Employees who are coming back from furlough may feel particularly pressured to prove their worth, making it more likely for them to work while sick or be constantly switched on instead of relaxing in non-working hours.
Related article: Financial wellbeing at work: how does it affect the business?
How to prevent e-presenteeism in remote staff
Managing remote staff presents its own unique challenges, as communication between managers and employees is fundamentally changed by changing workplace setups and an increased reliance on digital communication.
Set clear expectations around communication and breaks
Culture starts at the leadership level – when you communicate that breaks and a clear distinction between working/relaxing hours are important and senior leaders demonstrate their commitment to this, everyone understands that healthy working practices are important, even in unusual circumstances.
Making your policy and HR documentation – such as the company handbook – readily available and reminding staff to read these can help set the expectation that regular working hours and breaks are still encouraged, even when staff are working from home instead of in the office.
Manage documentation and provide staff with the HR information they need with a cloud-based document management system
Schedule regular calls and check-ins
Routine and regular communication can help employees keep to a healthy working schedule. This will also help managers check in on staff who may need to take sick leave or are struggling with motivation while working remotely and dealing with the stress of isolation and uncertainty – which is more than understandable in the current global situation. At myhrtoolkit, we have daily team calls to have a chat and highlight what we are working on, helping collaboration and motivation.
Encourage holiday requests to avoid burnout
Encouraging employees to take annual leave is essential for avoiding burnout issues, as HR expert Gemma Dale recently wrote about in her article on holiday management under lockdown. It’s important to communicate to employees that they are not expected to check their emails etc. while they are on holiday and that, if communication is absolutely necessary, you will get in contact with them. This will help ensure that staff on annual leave are fully away from work and not completing work during their holidays – a phenomenon known as leaveism.
Written by Camille Brouard
Camille is a Senior Marketing Executive for myhrtoolkit who writes on topics including HR technology, workplace culture, leave management, diversity, and mental health at work.