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Earlier this week, Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, commented in relation to sick pay and COVID-19, “why in Britain do we think it’s acceptable to soldier on and go into work if you have flu symptoms, thus making your colleagues ill?”. He went on to question why workers believe that “as long as you can get out of bed, you should get into work”.

British Safety Council can empathise with these comments, which talk to the wider issue of presenteeism. This is when employees physically go to work but aren’t working as productively or safely as they should be due an illness, such as flu, or other physical or mental health condition.

Presenteeism has been on the rise since the 2008 financial crisis with health-related lost productivity costing the UK economy £91 billion a year in 2019. We accept there is a problem here that cannot be ignored. All organisations need to work together to resolve what is a difficult and complex issue that is causing great harm to businesses. Action now can help avoid presenteeism leading to serious long-term health issues.

Sick pay has also been highlighted as a cause of presenteeism during the COVID-19 pandemic, with UK workers infected with the virus having the lowest mandatory sick pay of all OECD industrialised nations as a proportion of average earnings, at just 10%. This can explain why UK employees, particularly lower paid employees, feel they must go to work when they are ill, so they can pay their bills and feed their families. Some OECD countries have made significant changes to mandatory paid sick leave as a result of COVID-19 to support workers infected with COVID.

Lawrence Waterman, Chairman of British Safety Council, commented,

“Presenteeism is a complex area to manage and manage well, but there is a positive case for employers to invest in the mental health of their employees, which supports the overall health of their business.

Given the Government’s approach to managing COVID-19 has revolved around lockdowns and for those that have, or suspect they have, the virus to self-isolate, there is an imperative to expand and extend mandatory sickness pay. This in turn will improve workers wellbeing and help fight the spread of the virus.


An overhaul of our sick pay approach is especially relevant to gig workers, as it simply hasn't kept pace with major changes in the world of work. Improving the adaptability of the UK’s mandatory sickness pay system would have the added benefit of being better prepared for future pandemics.”