‘You look terrible! But well done for coming in’ – Presenteeism – what is it, and how can we reduce it?

I’ve had a cold over the Christmas holiday. It was inevitable, I suppose. The clichéd battle of body and mind over invading illnesses during term time; you are victorious, and then the holidays appear as cavalry for infection, and you succumb. We’ve all been there. At least, though, when I could feel my throat tightening and a headache creeping in, my biggest worry was not being able to drink as much booze on Christmas Day. If the attack had taken me in term time, I would have felt very differently. Not physically different, of course, but psychologically much more distressed. Anxiety about what people would think. Stress about how much cover work to set. A groggy trudge through numerous emails to organise my absence.

In fact, I probably wouldn’t bother. More likely, I’d go in, deliver my lessons, become more ill and fatigued, and potentially infect colleagues and the children with my germs! But that’s okay, isn’t it, because the kids got their teacher? Well, this is the path most teachers seem to follow. 50% of teachers and (59% of leaders) feel compelled to come to work whenever they feel unwell (Teacher Wellbeing Index 2019), and the study also finds a positive correlation between those who are stressed and those who come into work regardless of them being ill, known as presenteeism.

The CIPD projected that in 2018, 86% of workers across industries saw presenteeism at work, compared with just 26% in 2010. Perhaps part of the reason is because the term was less widely used a few years ago, but mostly it implies that workplaces are demanding more from their workers in terms of hours and pressure. Worryingly, only 25% of those who have seen presenteeism in their organisation claim that anything is done to help employees, or to discourage them from this unhealthy culture.

It’s also easy for the mind to think of absence and immediately picture a sore throat, flu or a stomach bug, all common ailments that whip through workplaces (and especially schools) during autumn and winter. But stress is an ever-growing cause of absence, too, and staff are just as likely to work through intense stress as they are the common cold.

Regardless of the reason for your need to be absent, we’ve all felt the feeling when you realise that you might need time off. The panic of how much work we’ll need to do, while ill, to set cover. The impact on our colleagues. The difficult chat with the member of SLT who will ask us why we need to have time off. Let’s break down why teachers and education professionals are more likely to go in:

Why does presenteeism exist in education?

1. We all want to teach our students. We see them every day, we build great relationships. And we want the best for them, so we know that the expert teacher they see every day is the right person to teach them. We feel a sense of guilt that we aren’t there to teach our young charges!

2. Setting cover – this is an onerous task at the best of times (e.g. when going on a trip), let alone when you are under the black cloud of illness and only have hours to do this in. Creating high quality cover for all your classes can take all of those hours, especially when you’re operating below your usual standards!

3. Impact on other staff. Ultimately, we know that someone’s day will be impacted when we are absent. Whether it’s our HOD, printing cover and sorting out logistics, the teaching staff who must cover your lessons, or possibly the cover supervisor who you worry will chat too much to your year 8 class when you have just got them where you want them!

4. SLT expectations. Leadership Teams, although we must stress not all, can be unsympathetic when it comes to staff absence, and this can manifest in different ways. Whatever their reaction to your illness, for some teachers this gauntlet is one too many to run.

5. Workload: being out of school inevitably leads to more work. It’s a day fewer to check off items on your to-do list, answer emails, mark things that are probably building up. And then you return from your absence, and the work is still there, and time is even tighter.

6. The way we are perceived. Many workplace cultures celebrate the martyr ethos of running yourself into the ground for the sake of the cause. ‘We’re in it for the kids’ is a very noble pursuit, but who will suffer most if a teacher experiences mental or physical burnout because they ignored the symptoms and merely plodded on, blinkered as to what they really needed?

We need to remove barriers to staff being absent

So, there are plenty of reasons to avoid being absent when you’re a teacher or education professional. Put simply, it can be more trouble than it’s worth. But that attitude ignores some vital pieces of the puzzle. Firstly, long-term mental and physical health will not be fostered by an attitude that pays casual or flippant attention to how staff feel when they are at work. Most employers worry about absenteeism: how can we reduce number of days absent, they plot. But, in reality, it is presenteeism which is the bigger issue – this is the preventative measure, not the painkiller to treat a symptom. A Financial Times article recently drew upon data which suggested that the number of days productive work lost every year due to presenteeism (a staff member being ill or distracted at work) far exceeds number of days absent.

If a nurturing culture exists in a school whereby staff know when they need to have a day off, they are trusted to do so without cross examination, it will make them feel positively to their work, and build a strong rapport that will far exceed an annual spate of tonsillitis. If teachers know that cover is sorted well within departments and that it is run smoothly at school, they will stay at home and actually rest, rather than panic about what email they need to send next. “Sally, stop vomiting for a minute and send me that worksheet for 8X2!”.

Here is what we’d recommend to teachers and leaders regarding presenteeism and absence:

  • Staff like to feel trusted. It empowers them and creates great rapport. Leaders: If a staff member calls in sick, sympathise with them, ask them how they are – tell them not to worry! Rest and recuperation are the most important thing. In the long term, your understanding will yield much more time in school and loyalty than the absence period of this sick staff member.
  • Teachers are humans. We all get ill. No guilt required. Teachers, none of us want to be ill, or miss a day in front our students, but it can happen. Next time you feel that illness grip you on a school night, feel free to fight it and go to battle. But if you do succumb, focus on getting better, not feeling guilty or anxious. We shouldn’t have to wrestle with our conscience when we are already experiencing a mental or physical health ailment.
  • Cover – there can be good systems. We’d recommend that every department invests time over the course of a year (INSET, gained time), making 2-3 lessons of cover for each scheme of work, so that if you are off during a unit, you can set immediate cover, whichever lesson you happen to be on. The HOD can then print it out and, hey presto. Alternatively, generic cover for any topic could be centrally created in advance
  • Lose the martyr culture. Teachers and leaders, it’s okay to be more open about our health and mental health. We all work incredibly hard and make many sacrifices for work. So let’s be open about out struggles and look after each other, not by ‘powering through’ but by giving healthy advice and making sure the school culture is about long-term health and wellbeing of staff – that is surely best thing for the students and their outcomes.

For us, it’s so important that teachers, who work extremely hard, can be absent if they need to, like other professions. They should be trusted as adults and professionals that if they ask for a day off, it’s because it’s needed, and that if they are off, they can recuperate without worrying about the ramifications when they return to work.

Without wishing to speculate wildly, it seems that in the long term, if your school and its leaders are open, supportive and trusting about people inevitably needing some time off, it will make you more loyal to that organisation, boost your morale, and perhaps make you healthier (mentally and physically) in the long run. And that’s what schools and their children need.

Thank you for reading

Sam and Rachel

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