Presenteeism - what happened to work-life balance?

Once, bosses fretted about absenteeism and the problem of staff not turning up for work. Now they are starting to worry about “presenteeism”, the long-hours culture and staff who simply won’t go home.

From absenteeism to presenteeism

Presenteeism is the act of attending work while sick. A topic that is at times considered its opposite, absenteeism, has historically received extensive attention by management and researchers, but presenteeism is a relatively new focus.

It can basically be defined as working longer hours and taking fewer holidays than the company demands.

It may seem a strange concept. Who would do such a thing? Those who feel that their job is insecure, showing commitment by getting in earlier, staying later and sending emails at night.

It is also relevant that companies are in competition for talented staff with regards to benefits and perks. So, large offices can essentially be classed as “corporate villages”, with office bars, restaurants and gyms, even masseurs, manicurists, play areas and créches. For some staff, the office can genuinely seem more appealing than home.


More work, means more stress; and that has a knock-on effect on your private life. It can be a downward spiral.

This combination of job insecurity and ever more enticing offices is prompting firms which once fretted over absenteeism to start worrying instead about presenteeism and staff who simply won’t go home.

Well being… and the effect on productivity

Paul Burton, Head of Frettens' Employment Team, comments “This may stem from genuine concern for the wellbeing of staff but it is also because there is growing evidence that staff who work overlong hours end up producing less, rather than more. Workers need lunch breaks. They also need a life outside the office.”

Taking action against presenteeism

Some companies have taken explicit action against presenteeism. BT, for example, not only reminds staff that overtime is frowned upon, but uses a management consultancy to inspect employees’ timesheets and thus spot people who are spending too long at work.

Other firms allow, or encourage, staff to take “duvet days” (unscheduled days off), paid sabbaticals, flexitime or additional leave such as every afternoon before a bank holiday off.

The Health and Safety Executive advises employers to tackle the spiralling problem of workplace stress by encouraging staff to take their daily meal breaks and their full annual leave entitlement, discouraging them from working long hours or taking work home on a routine basis.

A work-life balance

Britain works the longest hours in Europe and the second longest, after America, in the developed world.

An annual study on the quality of life of 5,000 senior managers, for the Institute of Management, demonstrates that this issue is linked to health. It showed:

  • 40% of the UK’s junior to senior managers work 51 hours a week
  • 60% say it damages their health
  • 75% say it damages their relationship with their spouse
  • 80% say it damages their relationship with their kids
  • But they continue…

France enforces 35 hour week

France is currently conducting an enforced experiment in the work-life balance by legally enforcing a new 35-hour week. The aim is to reduce unemployment by redistributing labour between the overworked and the unemployed.

It remains to be seen whether it will work but, so far, there are positive benefits on the economy and on individuals. Gym memberships are on the up, as are travel and leisure, while DIY has taken off.


At Frettens, all of our solicitors offer a free initial meeting or chat on the phone to answer your questions. If this article raises issues for you or your business, please call us on 01202 499255 and Paul or Kate will be happy to discuss it with you.