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New research study: Flexible working arrangements and presenteeism in UK higher education during and post-COVID

  • 14 October 2022
  • By Fotios Mitsakis

This blog was written by Dr Fotios Mitsakis, Senior Lecturer at Nottingham Trent Business School. Fotios is the PI of ‘Flexible working arrangements and presenteeism in the UK Higher Education Sector during and post the COVID-19 Pandemic’, a collaborative project between Nottingham Business School – Nottingham Trent University, Strathclyde Business School – University of Strathclyde and Birkbeck, University of London. The research team invites readers to participate in their online survey which will remain open until March 2023.

With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, an urgent shift to flexible working arrangements was introduced both for academic and administrative staff in the UK higher education sector. However, such practices were associated with higher rates of presenteeism, and impacted staff’s mental health and wellbeing through increased hours of work.

A common theme of most research into presenteeism is that employees physically attend work while being unwell. However, ‘virtual presenteeism’ (that is, to continue working from home while being sick) is an emerging and alarming norm, bringing all the same negative aspects to the table as going to work unwell in person. Presenteeism is driven by an individual’s type of employment, years of service, and their role within the organisation. During the pandemic, many employees continued working from home while feeling unwell, often due to fears of redundancy (especially those on fixed-term contracts) or aspirations for career advancement, all the while affecting their mental health and well-being and leading to stress and burnout.

The underlying assumption of this type of presenteeism culture suggests that the individual is loyal to the organisation and responsible for its goals and success, even if the employee’s ‘greedy’ institution provides neither job security nor decent work or adequate health and safety protection. This is the key argument underlying a new research study between the University of Strathclyde, Birkbeck, University of London, and Nottingham Trent University. Our collaborative research project explores flexible working arrangements and presenteeism in the UK higher education sector during and after the global pandemic. We are exploring the interconnection between a range of personal factors (such as job attitude, feelings of high obligation, financial difficulties, career aspirations) and work-related factors (for example, stress, low support, increased attendance pressure) which drive presenteeism. The project seeks to evaluate what support – if any – is provided by managers to staff in relation to sickness and absence policies.

Since flexible working arrangements are expected to become the norm in the UK higher education sector,  the risk of ‘virtual presenteeism’ likewise becoming the new norm is increased, further impacting workers’ mental health and well-being. Our study also relates to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of good health and well-being (SGD 3), as well as that of decent work and economic growth (SDG 8), and quality education (SDG 4).

After we have collected and analysed data from the study, we will submit our findings to two academic journals: Studies in Higher Education and The International Journal of Human Resource management. The first research paper will focus on the relationship between flexible working arrangements and presenteeism, as well as the support, if any, provided by management to staff who experience sickness, and how absence management policies have been shaped to prevent physical and virtual presenteeism. The second research output will discuss how presenteeism could affect the mental health and well-being of academic and admin staff. We also hope to make available short, open access reports to sector bodies.

If you work in the UK higher education sector, either as an academic or non-academic member of staff, we invite you to take part in this important and timely research by completing our online survey. We value your views and experiences and look forward to drawing upon them to shape higher education policy for the better.

Our online survey, Flexible Working Arrangements & Presenteeism in UK HE Sector, is open until March 2023.

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