Amy White, Solicitor in Rix & Kay’s Employment Team discusses the merits of encouraging people to go home at 5pm

Presenteeism! Not a particularly common expression, but our tip to be one of the biggest buzz words for 2017. Big businesses are starting to wake up to the idea that working all the hours God sends is actually no good for anyone – individuals and organisations alike – and working less could turn out to be far more productive.

So what is all the fuss about?

Presenteeism is defined as ‘the practice of being present at one’s place of work for more hours than is required’. In practice, this means people coming to work while suffering with poor health when really they should be tucked up in bed with a Lemsip, as well as compulsively checking and sending emails in the middle of the night and sitting in the office for hours on end while achieving next to nothing (other than viewing some particularly good photos of cats on Instagram of course).

While it might seem that employers should be more concerned with staff taking excessive sick leave, sloping off early or turning up late, the opposite is actually becoming a significant issue with serious consequences for employers. Not only are poorly and overworked employees likely to be ineffective during the time they spend at work, their impaired performance and level of concentration could lead to errors that cost time and money to fix.

In the past, attending work while you were under the weather or working late into the night was seen as something to be praised – it showed dedication and real strength of character. The reality however, is that it may well be costing businesses a great deal more than it saves them. The results of a 2015 survey conducted by Simplyhealth and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), found that in the preceding 12 months, a third of firms reported a rise in employees working when they were sick and those firms were nearly twice as likely to report an increase in stress-related absences. Furthermore, a report from the Work Foundation found that the cost of presenteeism in the workplace could account for one-and-a-half times the cost of sick leave.

While at first this might seem surprising, the more you think about it, the more obvious it becomes. It’s clear that the longer you’re expected to labour on, the less productive you’re going to be and the more stressed out you’re going to feel. The question for an employer though is how to manage this problem.

As of 1st January 2017, French companies with more than 50 workers were obliged to start negotiations with their staff in an effort to define their right to ‘disconnect’ out-of-hours.

This measure has been introduced by the French Labour Minister, in an effort to tackle the ‘always on’ culture that is developing in France (a country famous for its well protected workforce and its short working week). This culture has been blamed for a whole raft of social and personal problems including insomnia, relationship breakdown and, of course, ‘burnout’. The new measure now requires employers to negotiate with their staff, in an effort to agree and define their right to switch off and to reduce the intrusion of the workplace into the home.

While France is choosing to tackle the problem of presenteeism at a statutory level, a number of large companies have already taken steps, at a policy level, to deal with the issues it presents. Examples include Volkswagen and Daimler in Germany who have introduced a range of measures including cutting email connections in the evenings and at weekends, and automatically destroying emails sent to employees during their annual leave.

The need to provide employees with some clarity as to when they can switch off is not only good for staff – it can also have some real benefits for employers from a risk management perspective. By way of example, many banks and other financial institutions in the UK insist, as a safeguarding measure, that their staff take two consecutive weeks’ holiday every holiday year. They know that an employee can easily hide errors, theft and fraud while they’re in the office and have access to the necessary systems, but that a prolonged period of absence can often help to bring such issues to the surface.

So, while you might not want to follow France’s lead and enter into a deal with your staff as to their ‘right to disconnect’, and while you might not want to impose a requirement on your employees to take a full two weeks’ leave in one chunk each year (like some of the big banks) you can still help to achieve a better sense of balance amongst your workforce.

What it comes down to is changing the culture of your workplace. Such a fundamental change needs to come from the top down, so start by considering how you and your fellow managers behave – you’re often the worst culprits! As your staff won’t be encouraged to leave at a reasonable hour or to take their annual leave, if you’re in the office until all hours and never take a break, could you start by practising what you preach? Even better, what about a five o’clock quitting whistle?

Rix & Kay has a dedicated Employment Law Team based in its offices in Brighton & Hove and Uckfield. The Team work in partnership with businesses of all sizes providing detailed advice on strategic employment issues ranging from internal reorganisations and all types of discrimination claims in the Employment Tribunal.

For more information regarding how we might be able to help you, please contact Amy White or Miranda Martin

Rix & Kay

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