Tim Ablett explores the latest threat to business and employee productivityast year, broker her claim she saw the insurance industry as an unsympathetic beast

Today's focus on reducing levels of absenteeism has given birth to a new trend which is creating equal, if not more, damaging consequences to a businesses's bottom line - presenteeism.

But just what is this new plague spreading across the UK workforce? The overriding definition of 'presenteeism' according to WebMD Medical News is: "The feeling that one must show up for work even if one is too sick, stressed or distracted to be productive; the feeling that one needs to work extra hours even if one has no extra work to do."

From pressure comes stress, which is now one of the largest causes of employee absence in the UK. According to the British Occupational Health Research Foundation, 17 million days absence were attributed to work-related stress last year, more than twice as many as caused by workplace injury.

The direct cost of lost working days is estimated at around £11.6bn, but one risk management company is estimating that indirect costs could add up to as much as £33bn.

Add to this the fact that the World Health Organisation predicts that mental illness will become a leading global problem, second only to heart disease, it is little wonder that 'presenteeism' has become a very real threat to businesses.

A US study by AdvancePCS, a provider of health improvement services, found that lost productivity was significantly greater from days at work while sick (72 %) compared to missed work days due to illness (28%). Thus, of the total lost productivity tab of $250 bn (£130 bn) annually, the estimated presenteeism cost is $180bn (£94 bn).

Work slowdowns
Another study by Cornell University Institute for Health and Productivity in the US reported that work slowdowns caused by illness on the job, accounts for up to 60% of an employer's health costs.

What's more the study went on to show that for some common conditions, such as allergies and headaches, on-the-job productivity losses may account for more than 80% of the employer's total health care costs.

And there is growing evidence linking mental illness to decreased productivity. So where does this leave us? A year ago, I said in this publication that legislation was putting a greater emphasis on employers to reduce sickness and absence.

This has since been exacerbated with the introduction of financial penalties for non-compliance with the new Health and Safety Executive stress and absence management requirements and the Disability Discrimination Act [2004].

Also, within recent months, we have seen the introduction of industry and government initiatives that have been focused on making return to work and rehabilitation a fundamental part of the employee management process.

While these steps in themselves are vital they aren't really tackling the causes behind absence.

The TUC suggests the tough new measures created to combat absenteeism are forcing people to work when they are genuinely sick, and any programme that offers incentives for good attendance could contribute to the growing issue of 'presenteeism'.

Together we need to find a way to balance the crackdown on absenteeism, so as to avoid pushing up levels of 'presenteeism' and operating an underperforming workforce.

There remains a fundamental need for businesses to put in place a proactive employee risk management strategy which focuses on creating a positive environment that cultivates a happy, healthy and motivated workforce.

Employers need to consider a range of solutions. Forward-thinking employers have already introduced positive health and well-being including pre-employment screening and advice, line manager health awareness training, health checks and promotions for all employees and low cost access to fitness clubs.

This is set in a culture of positive health where employees are empowered to take responsibility for their own well being. The employer's role is to provide easily accessible advice, guidance and, where relevant, practical support such as access to physiotherapy or to help people back into the workplace.

Well-being audits
Many employers, who recognise that performance and well being go hand in hand, are also now embracing well being audits, early intervention absence management services and 24/7 access to expert medical, counselling and lifestyle advice through employee assistance programmes.

Those employers who promote a sense of working smarter and healthier rather than harder and faster will help staff create a positive work-life balance.

And however hard it is to break the long hours culture, bosses should show leadership by taking responsibility for their own work-life balance and respecting that of their employees.

By creating a positive health culture, businesses stand to gain from a healthy and motivated workforce, which will in turn reduce both absence and 'presenteeism' issues. IT

' Tim Ablett is chief executive of FirstAssist