Presenteeism is the act of showing up for work without being productive, generally because poor health prevents it. In other words, presenteeism occurs when employees come to work even if they are unwell instead of staying home and getting better. Presenteeism in the workplace leads to illness spreading throughout the department or organization and ill employees taking longer to recover.
Presenteeism in the workplace is not a new phenomenon – anyone who’s ever dragged themselves to work with a splitting headache could tell you that. But, while employee sickness absence levels are routinely measured as part of health and productivity monitoring, the less tangible levels of sickness presence are often ignored.
Despite being an old habit, presenteeism is becoming more and more prominent and has a huge impact on the organization’s bottom line. According to a recent CIPD study titled “Health and Wellbeing at Work'', presenteeism has more than tripled since 2010.
Presenteeism is both important and somewhat misunderstood. In practice, the term seems to be associated with at least four different meanings.
Sick presence: The most common of these refers to people attending work even though they are sick. Many people will still attend work when they have a cold or an ongoing health condition such as a migraine or hay fever, electing not to write a sick leave letter to their superiors or HR department.
Habitual voluntary overtime: people may habitually stay at work for longer than they need to due to feelings of job insecurity. Overworking can lead to tiredness, poor health, and less productivity.
Disengagement: presenteeism can also refer to situations where employees consistently turn up to work but aren't fully engaged. Lack of motivation involves working at a reduced level because of other distractions, such as social media, browsing the internet, or playing games.
Technological presenteeism: some employees regularly respond to emails and check company updates outside of their working hours. It is becoming harder to fully switch off and take a break with constant access to laptops and work phones, leading to an unhealthy work-life balance.
Before addressing presenteeism, it is essential to identify its causes. Both employers and employees must look inward, as presenteeism stems from either internal or external pressure.
What makes employees ignore their well-being and work under unhealthy circumstances? Here are some areas to consider.
Do your managers have the skills to lead by example? Do they encourage and praise employees for their work? Or, instead, do they apply an unhealthy amount of pressure to work extended hours?
Is there a negative culture surrounding time-off? Be sure your management is encouraging staff to invest in their work-life balance. This means taking a vacation and sick days when needed and considering the simple implementation of absence management software to make leave requests easier.
Even good intentions surrounding things like attendance can backfire. A jacket on the back of the chair or a screen light until late at night doesn’t mean productivity. Avoid giving out praise or awards for employees that simply turn up to work.
Another cause of presenteeism is overworked employees. Let’s look at the statistics: according to the American Institute of Stress, heavy workloads were reported as the main cause of stress among 46% of employees.
When workers have multiple jobs to perform, they often can't finish their obligations within a regular workday. Employees are constantly anxious and playing catch-up – working nights, weekends, and public holidays.
Job security is a primary concern of most working adults. Fear drives countless people to work extended hours and during times of serious illness or injury. Every employee wants to be considered "irreplaceable." Not to mention that many workers are living paycheck to paycheck and can't afford to lose their jobs.
Additionally, an employee with an overdeveloped sense of duty can push themself to work when they really should take time off. Some bosses beg people to take time off for illness or vacation, and yet the employee can’t bring themselves to do so. If you’re worried that you’ll never catch up or that people will think you’re not that important, it can lead you to work when you shouldn’t.
Other factors contributing to presenteeism are:
Business owners with more traditional views might hold that employees coming to work while under the weather is no bad thing: it shows a certain level of dedication, after all, and it means absence levels are down. However, this is not true at all. The reality is that working while ill not only prevents that person from working to the best of their ability, and it can also infect coworkers. A disease that makes someone feel bad can be deadly to an immunocompromised coworker.
So, when presenteeism happens in the office, you can end up with multiple people sick over weeks instead of one person out of the office for two days.
It’s not just infectious diseases that are the problem. People who don’t take time off from work can suffer from stress and burnout. Stress can cause or exacerbate health problems, including deadly ones, such as heart attacks. Burnout makes it impossible for an employee to provide quality work.
According to a telephone survey from American Productivity Audit, the cost of employees when they were ill surpassed $226 billion for employers. Researchers also figure that this is an underestimate since various factors such as not accounting for employee disability that leads to a continuous absence of one week or more were not counted.
Once presenteeism is identified as an expensive problem in the business, it is crucial to find ways to prevent and fix it.
Recognize the signs
As a business owner, head of a department, or manager, you are bound to have a busy schedule, and you might lose sight of your teams’ shifts in motivation or wellbeing.
At the same time, employees with health problems, especially mental-health-related ones, often feel unsafe to disclose them to their manager. Managers are rarely educated to notice the signals associated with employees experiencing high levels of stress or mental health problems. Encourage managers to have open and supportive 1-1 sessions with your employees to discuss how they’re getting on, both professionally and personally.
Tackle mental health stigma
When employees know they're in a working environment where their mental health and wellbeing are important, they will be more likely to disclose stress and mental health issues instead of suffering in silence due to the fear of judgment. This means managers can monitor employees' welfare more effectively.
Plus, employees can then take the steps they need to reduce stress levels and improve their mental health, whether that involves taking time off and/or adjusting other aspects of their work.
Lead by example
Presenteeism is, at its root, a culture problem; fixing it starts at the top. Senior managers need to stay home when they are sick or unable to attend to their work for whatever reason. Period. It doesn’t matter how many sick days you offer. If the leadership doesn’t use them, the hard workers who want to climb the corporate ladder won’t either - no matter how sick they are.
Employees look to supervisors to figure out how 'acceptable' sickness absence is; if managers battle through work despite being ill, people they manage are likely to feel more pressure to do so. Ensure that staff at senior levels understand the importance of tackling presenteeism in the workplace, even in themselves. By doing so, you will help ensure healthier attitudes towards absence across your organization.
Monitor performance based on results rather than the presence
Some employees may think that working later hours than expected is looked on favorably by employers, so they aim to achieve perfect attendance to show loyalty. This sort of mentality contributes to presenteeism; in the long run, it could be doing your business more harm than good.
Rather than rewarding staff for the number of hours they’ve spent at work, build a culture that rewards work delivery and outputs instead. This strategy will reduce presenteeism, as employees will see that working hard doesn’t have to mean working more hours than they’re paid for.
A company’s absence policies may be designed to reduce absences, but if they're not handled right, you may just get a rise in presenteeism instead, particularly for employees with financial burdens. Taking a kinder and less discipline-based approach to absence policies and enforcing them will help reduce the culture of uncertainty and insecurity that can fuel presenteeism. Ensure that your line managers understand the relationship between absenteeism and presenteeism and that they provide support to employees returning to work after a period of illness.
Sometimes managers need to evaluate presenteeism on an individual basis and to make sure every employee is receiving enough annual leave – and using it!
Using a time clock and attendance software is a great way to monitor staffs' exact start and end times. Monitoring working hours helps managers spot any workers regularly putting in excessive hours and not taking scheduled breaks.
An automated time tracker will show you (and the employee) exactly how much overtime they've accrued if overtime is an issue. Then, together, you can make a plan to reduce their workload and hours.
While some employers might be fooled into thinking employees that work through their illnesses or during their days off is a positive thing, those aware of the negative effects of presenteeism know better.
These effects are detrimental for both individual employees and organizations as a whole. The good news is, the right approach combined with support from managers and technology can help tackle this growing epidemic.
If presenteeism isn’t already on your radar, it should be. Making appropriate changes to line manager training and addressing problematic aspects of workplace culture will help ensure your workforce is healthier and more motivated in the long term.
We recommend reading up next our guide on employee absenteeism and learn how to calculate deal with absenteeism, what are the causes of absenteeism and what is the cost of absenteeism.Absenteeism in the workplace
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