by | May 24, 2024

Is It OK to Work Whilst Unwell? 

Presenteeism: Is It OK to Work Whilst Unwell?

What is presenteeism?

The concept of presenteeism is gaining more attention, yet it remains frequently misunderstood. In this episode of our Re Engaged @ Work podcast, business psychologist Dr Zara Whysall joins us to unravel the complexities of presenteeism and its impact on health and productivity, providing practical strategies for creating a workplace culture that prioritises wellbeing without compromising productivity.

Presenteeism occurs when employees work despite being unwell, whether they are physically at the office or working remotely. Unlike absenteeism, where the absence from work is visible and measurable, presenteeism often goes unnoticed but can be far more prevalent and detrimental to both employee health and organisational performance.

Balancing health check-ins and productivity

A crucial part of managing presenteeism involves regular health check-ins. Zara suggests that these should be tailored to individual needs and integrated into a structured approach that does not overwhelm employees.

Practical strategies:
  • Individualised check-ins: Tailor frequency and depth of check-ins based on individual health needs and job roles. This can include weekly check-ins for high-stress roles and monthly for more stable positions.
  • Structured monitoring: Implement structured systems for monitoring employee wellbeing that are non-intrusive but effective. This could involve digital tools that allow employees to self-report their health status easily.

The role of occupational health frameworks

Proactive occupational health management is essential for preventing minor health issues from escalating. Zara discusses the importance of early detection, workplace adaptations, and phased return-to-work programs.

Key components:
  • Early detection: Identify health issues early through regular health screenings and wellbeing programmes.
  • Workplace adaptations: Make necessary adjustments to the work environment to accommodate employees recovering from illness or managing chronic conditions.
  • Phased return-to-work programmes: Develop programmes that allow employees to gradually return to work with flexible hours and reduced workloads.

Managing workplace presenteeism and burnout

The episode also explores the concept of therapeutic presenteeism—where working can have a positive impact on health when managed correctly. Zara stresses the importance of creating a supportive workplace culture that prevents burnout and promotes wellbeing.

Supportive workplace practices:
  • Reasonable adjustments: Allow flexible working conditions and adjust workloads to accommodate employees’ health needs.
  • Burnout prevention: Encourage regular breaks, realistic workloads, and access to mental health resources to prevent burnout.

Navigating chronic illness and decision-making

Employees with chronic health conditions often face tough choices about whether to work or take a sick day. Zara highlights that these decisions are influenced by personal motivations and the need for managerial support in making health-conscious choices.

Guidance for managers:
  • Encourage health over work: Promote a culture where taking time off for health is seen as responsible and necessary, not a weakness.
  • Reflective decision-making: Help employees reflect on their decisions regarding working while unwell and support them in prioritising their health.

Job crafting and seeking help

Job crafting involves employees reshaping their work environment and responsibilities to better fit their health needs and capabilities. Zara also discusses the importance of seeking help and overcoming fears related to asking for support.

Practical steps for job crafting:
  • Redesigning tasks: Allow employees to modify their roles to suit their strengths and health needs better.
  • Encouraging help-seeking: Create a culture where seeking assistance is normalised and supported by both peers and managers.

Creating a positive workplace culture

Fostering a positive workplace culture where seeking help is normalised is essential for addressing presenteeism. Zara emphasises the power of sharing personal experiences to build a supportive environment.

Strategies for a positive culture:
  • Sharing personal stories: Encourage employees and leaders to share their experiences with managing health and work.
  • Psychological safety: Cultivate a culture of psychological safety where employees feel secure in expressing their health concerns and seeking support.
Key takeaways:

The conversation with Dr Zara Whysall provides invaluable insights and actionable strategies for managing presenteeism and promoting a healthy, productive work environment. Whether you are an employee, manager, or employer, understanding the nuances of presenteeism and implementing thoughtful strategies can transform your workplace into a space that champions recovery, maintains productivity, and upholds wellbeing.

  • Understand presenteeism: recognize the prevalence and impact of working while unwell.
  • Tailor health check-ins: customise check-ins to individual needs without overwhelming employees.
  • Proactive health management: implement early detection and workplace adaptations to support employee health.
  • Supportive culture: foster a culture where seeking help and prioritising health is encouraged and normalised.
  • Balance work and health: promote job crafting and flexible work arrangements to accommodate health needs.

Tune in wherever you get your podcasts: Spotify, Apple Podcasts, YouTube, Amazon Music, Google Podcasts and many more… 

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