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Pandemic presenteeism: Pressing problem

The pandemic forced an immediate shift to widespread remote working1, shattering overnight cultural and technological barriers that previously hindered mass remote work.2 Despite this unprecedented shift being entirely untested, many employers are now seeing first-hand multiple benefits - to their staff, operations and costs.3

However, hybrid or remote working isn’t without risks. Almost half (46%) of employees surveyed by The Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM) said that they felt more pressure to be ‘present’ since working from home; 24% felt the need to prove they were working each and every day.

As a result, more than one third of employees have continued working at kitchen tables, in spare rooms and other makeshift offices even when unwell, often due to fears about being singled out for redundancy if they aren’t seen as productive.5

What's the problem?

Presenteeism - where employees feel they must work despite only being able to perform at a lower capacity due to ill health - was a problem before the pandemic.6 In 2019, 80% of employees still worked whilst unwell. Understandably, employees cannot perform their best whilst battling illness or injury. Presenteeism therefore comes at a cost - more than £15 billion annually.7

However, the pandemic kicked presenteeism into an even higher gear. With commutes consisting of just a few steps from bed to home office, it’s perhaps no surprise that:

  • 40% of employees went to work whilst sick during lockdown because they didn’t feel their illness was serious enough to take a day off
  • 20% of employees did so because colleagues/senior staff would make them feel guilty for having time off.8

This, too, comes at a cost - this time, to employees’ mental health.

More than half (56%) of adults said that their mental health had deteriorated since lockdown.9 For some, this became diagnosable depression. Almost one fifth of adults are reporting some form of depression since the pandemic - more than double the previous rate amongst the population.10

A report released in early 2020 put the cost of poor mental health amongst employees at between £33 billion and £42 billion per year for employers.11 Yet with there being such a huge rise in metal health concerns since the outbreak of the pandemic, this figure may well be far higher if the report came out today.

Ongoing risks of hybrid working

Even with Freedom Day granted and most COVID-19 restrictions lifted,12 the reality is that many workers may never return to the office full time.13 If hybrid working means employees spend less time in the office, employers could find it more difficult to spot problems such as workplace stress early and act before it becomes a larger issue. It will therefore be even more important to have a strong mental health and wellbeing policy in place.

As part of this, Unum’s workplace mental health and wellbeing review* can review any existing wellbeing programme you have in light of changing work practices, or offer guidance if you’re starting from scratch, based on guidelines in the government report Thriving at Work, as well as the Mental Health at Work Commitment. Our wellbeing consultants examine your current wellbeing initiatives and produce a comprehensive report with an actionable plan in areas you could improve, with ongoing support to implement the changes.

Meanwhile, Unum’s education and training workshops* for managers help them grow in confidence in their roles and learn lifelong skills that can benefit the business. This includes spotting early signs of poor workplace mental health among workers and knowing how to act to combat it. To find out more and learn about our employee-focused sessions, contact us.

Early intervention truly is key for employees’ wellbeing.14 If you spot an employee struggling, you can refer them for a Unum Wellbeing Check.* This offers 1-2-1 support from expert Vocational Rehabilitation & Wellbeing Consultants, who’ll help the employee identify self-management techniques that can help improve their wellbeing.

Other ways Unum can help…

To maintain workplace wellbeing in a hybrid working world, employers need to act. Unum customers and their employees can access a huge variety of support services to proactively tackle health and wellbeing issues and provide timely intervention where necessary. This includes:


Fast, direct access to five key support services via one simple app, including 24/7 remote GP appointments to reduce the time employees spend struggling at work in ill health waiting for an appointment, plus access to mental health professionals and physiotherapists within 2 working days.

Employee assistance programmes

A confidential, 24/7 support service for employees to assist with a range of issues, including money, legal, health and wellbeing concerns.

Absence management support*

Whether an employee is struggling at work due to an illness or injury, is on their first day of sickness absence or needs a tailored plan to phase back to work, Unum can help with planning, guidance, identifying reasonable adjustments and more.

Wellbeing calendar from Unum

Our Wellbeing Calendar

Contains a huge array of resource to help both employers and employees manage their mental health at work, including guides, podcasts, webinars and more.

Whatever approach you take and whichever resources you use to integrate wellbeing into your workplace, the key takeaway is that proactivity and early intervention are key.

Despite the challenges of doing so in a hybrid working world (which is why support from a suite of resources such as those Unum offers can be so valuable), spotting the signs of a struggling employee and intervening early remains the best way to prevent presenteeism and absenteeism.15 By the time an employee takes their first sick day, the impact on both themselves and the business is already too great.

Terms and conditions

* Available to GIP customers

** Help@hand is a virtual, value-added benefit service which connects the employees of Unum customers to third party specialists who can help manage their health and wellbeing, and that of their family. Access to the service is facilitated by Unum at no cost to the Unum customer. Unum is not the provider of the service but can withdraw or change the service at any time. The service is entirely separate from any insurance policy provided by Unum and is subject to the terms and conditions of the relevant third-party specialists. There is no additional cost or increase in premium as a result of Unum making this benefit available.

1. https://www.openaccessgovernment.org/how-are-remote-systems-revolutionising-modern-businesses/87249/

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