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  • Presenteeism: An underlying mental health issue to workplace problems 

    By Rob Evans, Senior HR Consultant at WorkNest 

    According to a recent WorkNest poll, most (92.8%) employers are aware of their responsibilities concerning mental health and wellbeing. However, when WorkNest questioned HR professionals and employers about employee wellbeing training, almost one in eight (79%) admitted to not providing line managers with training to support employees with their mental health and wellbeing. 

    Line managers play a crucial role in supporting employee wellbeing. By getting to know their team well and encouraging open communication, line managers are better placed to spot any changes in team members’ behaviour. If equipped with the right skillset, they can manage issues and offer support before the employee reaches a crisis point. However, due to the pandemic and employees working remotely and in a hybrid manner, mental health issues have been much harder to spot as the opportunity to pick up on visual clues that are far easier to detect in the workplace can be missed. 

    Line managers must build solid relationships with their colleagues and employees as it could be the all-important factor in spotting underlying mental health and wellbeing issues regarding workplace problems such as sickness absence, poor performance or presenteeism. Solid relationships between line managers and employees are especially vital if employees work in a hybrid manner. Therefore, training line managers with the right skills to spot these issues is key to providing the proper support to their teams. 

    Presenteeism: A mental health and wellbeing issue 

    Many employees experiencing poor mental health will struggle in their jobs and will cope by working harder and longer hours, sometimes even when they are unwell, on their days off or during annual leave – when they should be resting.  

    This is known as presenteeism – a term used to describe when an employee is constantly at work despite being unwell or not engaged, often due to a physical or mental health issue. Does this resonate? 

    The danger of working long hours for a sustained period, especially when dealing with poor mental health, is that it can result in burnout – sometimes without explicit warning. Burnout can manifest as a mental or physical breakdown, which is likely to result in a long period of sickness absence, or even resignation, as a further attempt to hide mental health problems. 

    A real-life example of senior-level presenteeism 

    A company director suddenly left to take time off for personal reasons. Employees around this individual were concerned because they knew how many hours she worked and that she never seemed to switch off from work. She also did a tremendous amount of travelling, which probably disguised the fact that she worked even longer hours, often not arriving home until late at night.  

    Unfortunately, the director never returned to work after a long absence, which caused significant operational challenges for the organisation. 

    The effects of burnout are severe for both the employee and employer. Hence, employers need to be vigilant in identifying the signs of someone working over and above the level and hours that they should be, and instead of seeing it as a positive, intervene to find out the reason and be prepared to offer confidential support to the individual. 

    Common signs of burnout include: emails being sent outside of regular working hours, holiday entitlement not being used, breaks not being taken, and overly emotional behaviour. 

    So, what can HR and employers learn from this? 

    Communication is key. So regular catchups, where the employee and the manager have an open and honest conversation about how things are going, discuss workload, the remit of their job, their precise working hours, and their health. This way, potential issues can hopefully be nipped in the bud and prevented from escalating to presenteeism.  

    Sometimes the cause of this situation might be due to the job design or the workload not being realistic. Also, if the employee isn’t confident in raising this, it could negatively affect their mental health. Therefore, line managers should always encourage open and honest feedback from their staff and learn to spot the early signs of someone not coping. For example, line managers should encourage employees to set SMART targets for work tasks, which could indicate when someone is overperforming.  

    Remember that an employee practising presenteeism can be doing so because they are not willing or able to discuss their mental health with their employer. It is essential to be sensitive in these cases and ideally be able to signpost them to resources outside of the organisation that they can contact for support. Having an Employee Assistance Programme (or EAP) is a beneficial resource because employees can usually access confidential free counselling as part of the package.  

    Employers must provide line managers with the proper training and support on mental health and wellbeing to manage hybrid teams as soon as possible. Education will help managers understand the signs and symptoms which may indicate that an employee is struggling and may require extra support. 

    Solve your employee wellbeing challenges with specialist support 

    WorkNest’s Employment Law and HR experts can offer training and solutions to HR professionals to support managers with the skills, confidence and understanding of dealing with employee wellbeing.    

    Visit WorkNest’s website to learn more about our personalised and flexible HR training and support packages. 


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