The number of sick days taken by British workers has fallen to its lowest rate on record, dropping to 4.1 days in 2017, a significant decline from the 7.2 days recorded in 1993. [1] On the surface this seems like a heartening indication of the UK’s improving health, but is this really the case?

Over the past five years we have seen an increased emphasis from employers, both globally and in the UK, on really demonstrating they are improving the physical health of their workforce. There’s a growing understanding that healthy people are more resilient and able to cope with the rigours of the workplace, so benefits such as gym memberships and cycle to work schemes are ubiquitous.

The problem is, despite UK employees spending more time at their desks, productivity is flatlining. This undermines assertions that general health is improving, and instead suggests that we’re seeing an increase in presenteeism; people attending work, but not working to their full ability.

We spoke to Jack Curzon, Head of Scheme Design at Thomsons Online Benefits around how to combat this.

“In recent years, employers have observed a dramatic increase in this phenomenon, with 86% saying they have seen staff attending work while ill.[2] Employers condoning visible sickness – people having coughs and colds in the workplace – is a fundamental issue. These can spread to other members of the workforce, further reducing productivity, and send an unappealing message about an employer; that they don’t care that their people are unwell.

But presenteeism isn’t just about employees being at work when they’re not at their physical best; mental health issues can also impede performance – and be far more difficult to spot or raise due to entrenched stigma. Against a back-drop of rising bills and inert salary growth, we’re also seeing personal financial strain take its toll on the workplace. Our recent research shows that over a quarter of UK employees struggle to meet day-to-day living costs, while another indicates that 25% of people experience money problems so substantial that these affect their ability to do their job.

So what should employers do?

Employers’ efforts to support their staff’s physical health should not be sniffed at. But those who are serious about upholding their duty of care for employees need to take a more holistic approach to supporting their wellness. Employers must recognise that physical, mental and financial health are intricately and inextricably linked and all impact employees’ ability to do their job.

So, what’s holding employers back? Our research indicates that many employers are struggling to redefine their approach to wellness benefits in light of social and workplace shifts. While benefits such as pensions and PMI remain rightful cornerstones of benefits schemes, these alone simply do not cater for the varied and immediate wellness needs of today’s employees, when more than a third of the UK workforce is experiencing anxiety, depression or stress.[3]

The gap between the support offered and that required by employees is also starkly apparent in our own research, which reveals that 90% of employers offer group life cover, yet only 5% fund initiatives to support wellbeing.


What do employees want?

There is no clear-cut answer to this question. Today’s employees are placed under such varying pressures that producing a one-size-fits-all scheme is no longer an option. They also don’t want and won’t embrace, a cookie-cutter approach to wellness. They want to feel understood, cared for and have their individual needs addressed.


Faced with such a challenge, it would be easy for HR and benefits teams to fall into inactivity. However, those that understand its urgency are embracing technology to transition to a more flexible approach to wellness. Administered via an online benefits portal, wellness pots enable employees to self-administer benefits that make a real difference to their day-to-day health and happiness; a subscription to a mindfulness app, baking classes or music lessons.


Alongside flexibility in fund allocation, online portals enable employees to access their wellbeing benefits at a time and place that suits them. For time-poor employees, being able to go home and think about their wellness could be critical to them addressing their issues. It would also be incredibly counter-intuitive for any organisation wanting to tackle presenteeism to only provide access to wellness benefits while employees are at work.


Solving the presenteeism problem   

Presenteeism is not a problem that can be solved overnight. It is often deeply entrenched in organisations and leadership teams need to lead by example if it is to be properly resolved, taking time off when they’re ill – not sniffing from their desk or working from home. However, implementing a holistic wellness scheme that enables employees to address the whole range of issues that could sap their productivity at work is also an important step. Doing so will lead to a happier, healthier workforce, but also one that is more loyal to their employer and engaged with their work.”


[1] The Guardian. Sick days taken by UK workers fall to lowest rate on record. ONS stats.

[2] Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD)

[3] The Independent, third of UK workers experiencing anxiety, depression or stress, survey finds. PwC stats.