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More than half of Brits admit going to work despite feeling ill: will 2021 be the death of presenteeism?

By Megan Boyle

Jan 31, 2021


More than half of British people have admitted to feeling obliged to go to work when sick. Should 2021 finally be the end of the ‘work till you drop’ culture?

Bolton digital marketing agency, The Audit Lab, asked the British public if they had ever felt too ill to work but gone in anyway, and an overwhelming 56 per cent of survey respondents admitted to going into work unwell.

The study found a huge 60 per cent of women said they had soldiered through the working day even when they felt ill. Do men merely have more confidence to make that morning phone call to HR? Perhaps women feel more pressured to prove themselves in their scaling of the career ladder, so they don’t want anything to hinder their progression.

Is the pressure of the hustle getting to us this much? It’s time to realise that we don’t need to burn ourselves out in order to be considered as having ‘succeeded’ through this pandemic. And it’s definitely time to stop saying we’re okay when we aren’t.

Claire Crompton, co-founder and director of The Audit Lab believes the stigma needs to end from the top down, especially in the aftermath of COVID: “I can certainly remember the anxiety over that morning phone call when I was first starting out in the working world. Even when I was really obviously ill, I felt like I wouldn’t be believed. But now I’m on the other side of that phone, I try really hard to not make it anxiety-inducing. Companies and loyal staff are built on trust; if you don’t trust your own staff to manage their own health and workload, how can you expect them to want to stay with you in the long-run?”

“And especially now, given the global pandemic, you’d think employers would be a lot more understanding about needing to call in sick. It’s no longer ‘just a cold’, and people shouldn’t be scared to request a day off when there’s a lot more at risk now,” Crompton adds.

To find out more about calling in sick’s impact on someone’s mental health, we put the question to the people to ask what was so off-putting about the morning phone call to request a sick day.

Tasmin Lofthouse, freelance digital market and blogger at Grandiose Days, says the idea of making that phone call to work gave her serious anxiety: “I used to dread phoning in sick whenever I had a migraine out of fear that I wouldn’t be believed. I would always worry that my Direct Line Manager would think I was lying about my migraine—even though, I’m sure that would never have been the case! I think this fear of calling in sick, for me, stems from worries that people think migraines are ‘just a headache’. I’d be so anxious about phoning in sick that on some occasions, I’d force myself to go into work and make the hour-long motorway journey even when experiencing aura symptoms and struggling to see. Something that I now realise is both dangerous and stupid!”

Wellness blogger, writer and illustrator, Chloe Quinn from Nyxie’s Nook, says her anxiety about calling in sick stems from her childhood: “I’ve always had anxiety about calling in sick to work. As a kid we rarely got sick days, we were sent to school, and then if we were sick enough usually sent home. This extended into my work life. I remember going to work with mumps as a teenager, working through horrible menstrual cramps, and going into work with a terrible flu (on three separate occasions, in three separate workplaces). I was more anxious about calling in sick than I was about going to work sick. For years, I believed that my job was more important and that I would be commended for coming in while clearly ill or in pain.”

“The phone call was one thing, but I also worried about what others would be thinking. Are they thinking I’m faking? I’m useless? My mum used to get angry at us sitting on our phone or laptop while home sick, stating that if anyone saw us on Facebook they would think ‘there is nothing wrong with them, why are they off?’. I’ve completely ghosted all social media when sick just to ‘prove’ it,” Quinn adds.

Joe Fisher, SEO freelancer at OptiClick said: “I’d say the main reason that calling in sick makes me anxious is the next day—the varying reactions from colleagues—I never know what to expect. People you get along with tend to have banter with you and joke about you skiving off, whereas others seem to shoot you looks of disappointment like a begrudged parent.”

“There is such a stigma around being sick because of traditional values that suggest millennials are lazy, but the way we work is changing. Remote working is becoming more prevalent, which is a good thing in my eyes.”