POSTED: January 15 2018
Over a third of employees ignore medical advice and go to work

Over a third of employees ignore medical advice and go to work


Sickness and absence levels are at their lowest ever, but could this be hiding the true state of employee health as two thirds admit to being ill, but still go into work.

The latest industry figures show the lowest level of sickness absence since records began almost a quarter of a century ago1. However research from leading health insurer, Bupa, highlights that millions head into work despite being unwell, with figures revealing that two-thirds (64%) of UK employees have done so in the last twelve months.

The findings come at a time when increasing productivity is a strategic goal for most business leaders in 2018. But high levels of ‘presenteeism’ are in fact associated with loss of productivity and reduced performance2 – as employees who push themselves into work when unwell, risk delaying their own recovery.

Bupa’s research shows that more than one in four (27%) employees ignore their doctor’s orders to stay at home and ‘soldier on’.

A third of employees would go to work despite back pain or issues related to their joints and, disturbingly, a similar number (29%) head to work when suffering from mental health issues such as depression. As two of the most common reasons to be signed off work, Bupa’s experts fear these employees risk worsening their health, increasing the likelihood that they’ll need a prolonged period of time off work further down the line.

Stuart Haydock, Resilience Lead at Bupa Health Services commented: “Over the years we have seen businesses working to create a culture where people feel comfortable discussing their health in the workplace. However it is clear that an element of the stiff upper lip mentality persists and that more needs to be done to encourage employees to safeguard their health and wellbeing, ensuring that they bring their best selves to work.

“Mental health conditions and musculoskeletal issues are two of the most common reasons for people to be on long term absence from work. Yet, as with most conditions, early diagnosis and treatment improves the chance of a faster recovery. We work with many businesses that signpost their people to tools and support that can help them to improve their resilience and address potential health concerns before they develop into something serious. Wellbeing should be a cornerstone of any workplace health policy and promoting the importance of listening to medical advice is a key part of that.”

Although businesses across the UK are starting to recognise that a healthy workforce is more productive, workload pressure is one of the reasons many people head to work regardless of the state of their health. Many felt their to-do list was too long for them to be able to take time off. A quarter (26%) of people selflessly head into work when they are seriously ill because they worry that their absence will be a burden on their team, unaware that this is counterintuitive.

However, others come into work despite being ill because of a lack of trust and they worry that their colleagues would think they were not genuinely unwell and others worry that being off may impact their job security.

Key findings of Bupa’s research:

  • 64% of UK respondents have gone into work in the last 12 months despite being unwell
  • 27% ignored their doctor’s advice to stay at home
  • 34% of UK employees go to work when suffering from musculoskeletal issues such as back ache and neck ache
  • 29% of the UK go to work when suffering from stress, anxiety or depression
  • 20% say they went to work when unwell as they had too much work to do to be able to take time off
  • 26% say they went into work when unwell as they felt worried about the burden of their absence on their team
  • 16% say the reason they went to work when unwell was because they felt worried people would think they were not genuinely sick
  • 13% say they went to work when unwell because they felt anxious about their job security



1 ONS (2017) Sickness absence in the labour market.  

2 IES (2016) A review of current thinking

About the research: 2,000 UK employees were independently surveyed in September 2017 by Opinium Research.

You can eread the Bupa press release in full here.