Absence levels are perhaps the most common measure of employee wellbeing in a workplace. The CIPD has been recording absence levels in UK organisations for almost twenty years now. Our latest research with the CIPD reveals that the average level of absence is 5.9 days per employee, per year. This figure is down from 6.6 days in 2018, and is the lowest level ever recorded by the survey.

This is positive news, but the decrease could be masking other unhealthy practices in the workplace. What could the drop be hiding? We believe two main absence-related trends, in particular, act as red flags for deeper organisational issues.


Let’s start by looking at presenteeism. This refers to when people come into work sick. And it’s a common occurrence in many workplaces; hands up who’s guilty of coming to the office with a cold, or seen someone doing it? Presenteeism has been observed in 83% of organisations, and a quarter of respondents to our survey reported an increase in presenteeism in the last 12 months.


Leavism is an interesting concept identified by Professor Sir Cary Cooper. This is when people use allocated time off to work, or if they are unwell, or when they work out of hours. Who checks emails when they’re holiday, or logs back on in the evening to complete work? Again, something many people do. Almost two-thirds of organisations have observed a form of leavism over the past year. The most common form is working outside contracted hours, and leavism in general is more common in organisations that also report presenteeism.

What’s the problem?

Both presenteeism and leavism are indicators of underlying issues that could be affecting employee health and wellbeing. Our research draws out some useful insights. For example, heavy workloads have been found to be the main cause of stress at work. And this could be a major driver for why employees carry on working outside their working hours. There could also be cultural influences that have an effect. If leaders don’t lead by example, they make it acceptable to come into work unwell, work after hours, or even on holiday.

These practices are all unhealthy. If employees work when they’re unwell, there can be serious implications for performance. They will take longer to get better, potentially affecting their longer-term wellbeing, and there’s a risk that they pass they pass illness on to others if they come to work. And if employees are using their allocated time off to work, they won’t get the break, rest and recuperation they need.

What’s the solution?

Despite the high numbers of organisations reporting these issues, only a small proportion are actually doing something about them. Around a third are taking steps to discourage presenteeism, and just a quarter are doing the same for leavism. The main actions that organisations are taking include better guidance for all employees and training for line managers.

Any effort an organisation can make to deal with these issues is positive, but tackling presenteeism and leavism only really looks at fixing the symptoms. Organisations that see these trends must heed the warning, get a handle on what’s driving them and put countermeasures in place. Encouragingly, a number of organisations who are addressing presenteeism and leavism are investigating the potential causes; 30% and 55% respectively.

There are a number of measures that can tackle the root causes, and many centre around two things; culture and leadership. Moving towards a culture that is based on output, rather than input can help to reduce those heavy workloads that drive employees to work out of hours. And getting leaders to role-model by not working when ill shows employees they must take the time they need if they get sick.

A final word

To get a better understanding of the state of employee wellbeing, employers must look beyond absence levels. It’s important we are not pacified by falling figures, instead taking notice of red flags like presenteeism and leavism, and understanding what could be driving these unhealthy employee behaviours. And of course taking action to deter them to create a healthier, happier and more productive workforce.

The CIPD/Simplyhealth Health and Well-being at Work 2019 report is the authority on absenteeism in UK workplaces, providing in-depth information on the types of absenteeism and its causes. Download the full report here. 

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All figures are taken from the CIPD/Simplyhealth Health and Well-being at Work 2019 report.

Simplyhealth Team

Simplyhealth Team

Simplyhealth helps companies, and their talent, perform well.

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