Presenteeism – a health and safety concern.

What is Presenteeism?

Presenteeism is the act of attending work while sick. This refers to employees attending work when ill with subsequent negative effects on performance and productivity. Sickness absence can undoubtedly have a detrimental effect within an organisation but presenteeism should be a health and safety concern.

Low sickness absence does not equate to a healthy workforce as many employees attend work when ill. Having present employees in seats doesn’t equate to productive engaged workers. All of these factors can and do reduce overall productivity of an individual and ultimately, the organisation.

Presenteeism is common

Presenteeism is on the rise amongst the UK workforce, with up to 93% of individuals stating they had attended work in the past year when ill (Canada Life Group Insurance, 2012).

Physical and Mental Health – Impact on Presenteeism

When attending work with a musculoskeletal condition, maintenance of performance requires greater effort as they try to manage their symptoms which can lead to increased mental strain and physical exhaustion. This translates to impaired judgment, slower reflexes in operating machinery or motor vehicles, a delayed response to emergency situations and inattention to details and instructions. Also when an employee’s mind is too distracted by real or perceived threats, he is not only more likely to make mistakes that could cause injury.

Several studies have reported strong causal links between presenteeism and mental strain (Bergstrom et al 2009; Demerouti et al., 2009). Mental strain has been found to be a major cause of workplace errors (Holden at al., 2010). Errors can have devastating consequences for employees and the organisations, especially in safety critical occupations.

Costs of Presenteeism to employer and employee

International research shows that presenteeism costs could be up to seven times higher than absenteeism in lost productivity (CooperHouse 2008). One study found that presenteeism was roughly equivalent to 10 % of working time lost, or 23.4 days per employee per year. Costing companies £2,340 per employee per year based on the average UK salary of 26k.

Presenteeism – A Health and Safety Concern

Presenteeism can have negative consequences from a health and safety perspective, as employee errors could potentially lead to fatal consequences. A study of 1,205 pharmacists found that 76% attended work while ill, presentee pharmacists made significantly more minor errors and serious mistakes, such as dispensing errors compared to the non-presentee pharmacists (Nivan et al, 2015). Serious dispensing error could be fatal.

Errors due to presenteeism can lead an increase in near misses, accidents and fatalities. Reducing presenteeism should be a high priority for those working in health and safety and HR. Taking proactive measures to reduce presenteeism will consequentially reduce workplace errors which will  impact on health and safety.


Bergstrom, G., Bodin, L.,Hagberg, J.,Lindh, T., Aronsson, G., & Joesphson, M.(2009). Does sickness presenteeism have an impact on future general health? International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health, 82, 1179-1190.″

PricewaterhouseCoopers. Building the case for wellness: 4th February 2008. London: PricewaterhouseCoopers; 2008. http://www.

Demerouti, E., Le Blanc, P.M., Bakker, A.B., Schaufeli, W.B., & Hox,J. (2009). Present but sick: A three-wave study on job demands, presenteeism and burnout. Career Development International, 14, 50-68.″

Nivan,K., Ciborowska, N (2015). The Hidden Dnagers of Attending Work While Unwell: A Survey Study of Presenteeism Among Pharmacists. International Journal of Stress Management, 22(2) 207-221.