Presenteeism – when employees are at work but not functioning effectively due to illness or health problems – is increasingly being seen as a growing threat to business productivity and employee wellbeing.

shutterstock_125936975Indeed, recent research shows that presenteeism costs businesses twice as much in lost productivity than absenteeism. Furthermore, figures show the UK economy loses £26 billion annually due to mental ill health alone, through lost working days, staff turnover and lower productivity. Yet despite these costs, nearly three-fifths (56%) of employers that have reported an increase in presenteeism have taken no steps to address it.

A key challenge is that presenteeism is notoriously hard to spot, as symptoms are often hidden and employees may have a number of reasons for wanting or needing to be at work, leading them to disguise how they are feeling.

Yet ignoring the problem is no longer a viable option for businesses, and here Keiron Sparrowhawk, CEO of leading cognitive assessment and training company MyCognition, recommends some small, but important steps businesses of all sizes can adopt to help tackle this growing problem.

  1. Introduce a Presenteeism Policy

Set out a simple, yet succinct, policy informing your employees about your company’s approach to illness and health problems. This must emphasise that employee wellbeing is a priority. If staff are mentally or physically unwell they should focus on improving their health. They are not expected to come to work. A clear policy should be communicated to all employees when they start and throughout their employment. Copies of the policy should be posted in the office or on the company intranet. Staff must understand that they will not be penalised for being unwell and that their judgement will be respected if they deem themselves unable to work. The policy should make clear that medical appointments are a necessity and can be taken in work time.

Underline your company’s commitment to staff health and wellbeing by giving someone dedicated responsibility for managing employee welfare. Finally, words should be supported by actions, so lead by example and ensure that you are not seen to be working yourself when you are unwell.

  1. Create a supportive, open culture

Encourage and instigate regular open and honest dialogue to pre-empt presenteeism threats. This is particularly resonant for identifying the early signs of stress, which untreated, can become a chronic condition with long-term health issues. Engaging staff by taking an interest in their needs and listening to their concerns demonstrates your support and should be followed by appropriate action, such as restructuring workloads for those who are struggling. This further reiterates that your company is understanding if staff suffer from health issues, and will boost employees’ perception of you as their employer.

  1. Protect employees’ work/life balance

In our 24/7, ‘always on’ working culture, employees can feel they rarely get a break from work. Decent breaks and a good work/life balance are vital to ensuring staff wellbeing and boosting productivity. Make sure this happens by insisting staff take their lunch break, or encourage communal eating in the office to ensure time away from the desk. Excessive hours can be a sign that people are struggling. Create an environment where you reward results rather than long hours, and once again this principle must be led by example. Challenge individuals clocking up excessive time and refrain from sending emails outside of designated hours, to allow employees to fully ‘switch off.’

A holiday calendar which is reviewed by your management team will ensure that employees take their full holiday entitlement and that you get early warning of staff heading for ‘burn-out’.

  1. Introduce cognitive assessment and training

Increasingly, cognitive assessment and training are being used by forward thinking companies who are embracing their potential to help identify and tackle the early signs of mental ill health, while at the same time improving performance. Computer assisted cognitive assessment and training is very flexible, and can help employees and businesses tackle presenteeism in a number of ways:

Identification and prevention: Cognition is synonymous with the way our mind operates. While a healthy, balanced cognition enables people to perform to the best of their abilities, stress, mental illness and ill health can have a negative impact on our cognition resulting in poorer functioning. Cognitive assessment tools such as MyCognition’s MyCQ can assess cognition in a 15-minute online test. The assessment empowers individuals, offering detailed information about their cognitive health, highlighting their strengths and potential weaknesses. An indication that someone is struggling in one or more cognitive areas provides a chance for them and their employer to act early and explore what the underlying issue might be and if necessary to seek professional help in a timely manner.

Boosting employees cognitive function: Employers can also introduce cognitive training to help boost mental wellbeing and resilience. MyCQ provides a “recipe” for MyCognition’s adaptive cognitive training programmes, which train cognition holistically, while focusing training intensely where there is the greatest need. This provides a complete cognitive workout, helping employees function more effectively.

Cognitive assessment and training is understandably increasing in appeal for those looking to tackle the pressing issue of presenteeism in their workplace because it is non-invasive, self-administered and tailored to the individual and employees. A growing body of scientific research supports the role cognitive training programmes are taking within HR and occupational health. Recent studies suggest it can boost verbal and visual memory performance. With the cost-benefit likely to be overwhelmingly positive, the popularity of cognitive assessment and training amongst employers and employees is only set to grow.

By Keiron Sparrowhawk, founder and CEO of MyCognition