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The Effects of Presenteeism in the Workplace

Employers and employees have an entwined relationship with time spent at work. We all know that numerous absent workers equate to an unproductive workforce. But, how about the opposite? How does overly present staff affect productivity? The answer to this question is best described by the concept of presenteeism.

Highlighted by academics, business stakeholders and health professionals as a productivity problem with equal importance to absenteeism, its recognition is critical for every business. It has two leading causes: staff attending work when ill and staff increasing efforts, perhaps beyond contractual obligations, to the point of becoming unproductive. It has significant high costs for a business and the people that make up its workforce.

Presenteeism in the Workplace

Herein, we introduce the concept of presenteeism in the workplace from the perspective of the employer and the employee and provide some suggestions for its recognition and mitigation.

First, let’s consider how presenteeism differs from absenteeism.

Presenteeism vs Absenteeism

Presenteeism and absenteeism sit on the same side of the productivity coin, yet on separate sides of the attendance coin.
Absenteeism, in the main, refers to unauthorised absences. This could be due to ill health, physical or mental, family problems and indeed work problems. Ultimately, when staff are regularly absent from work, they cannot perform their role effectively.

Contrasting this is presenteeism, which refers to attendance at work where one is not able to contribute productively. This is usually due to two main reasons: ill health and overworking.

What Damage Can Presenteeism Cause?

Overall, the costs of presenteeism in the workplace are, at best, a minor nuisance that requires control and, at worse, its eventual demise.

Consider the impact when one sick employee attends the workplace. Not only are they potentially worsening the severity of their illness, leading to a longer recovery, but they also risk spreading disease to others. Health costs grow exponentially.

The same applies to a culture of overworking – as more staff move out of the productive zone, so does the business.

As presenteeism manifests itself far enough in the workplace, a contagion effect ensues. Workers underperform, and morale drops. When morale drops, workers further underperform, much like the bottom of the league sports team. The consequences from here are evident – low morale will lead to an increase in staff turnover, the business output will decrease, the reputation of the business will suffer, and so will sales.

Of course, the employee and their psyche are at the centre of presenteeism. As such, a concern for every business should be the welfare of its staff. An employee suffering stress, burnout and worsening illness are not only unproductive but a potential legal risk.

When tired, we perform less well. As a result, mistakes increase, and performance decreases, and this yields low job satisfaction and sometimes resentment from colleagues.

Furthermore, it can contribute to personal problems. For example, a poor work-life balance often upsets loved ones, causing resentment at home, which is reflected in poor performance at work.

What Causes Presenteeism?

Both the employer and employee can contribute to presenteeism in the workplace.

From a business perspective, culture, supporting policy and management are of primary importance for influencing a healthy workforce. A culture that promotes an unhealthy work ethic could allow presenteeism to creep in. Further, a business without a purposefully designed culture will incur a culture that is an accidental product of the influential people that make up the business – regardless of their flaws.

Consider the example of a results-driven culture with a strict attendance policy that strongly deters non-attendance.

Regardless of the reward for good performance, such a culture presents risks to the performance of the business. Staff may become fearful of missing work for any reason and likely attend work when it is to the benefit of the company for them to be absent. This could be for fear of missing pay, being stigmatised or being disciplined. Equally, staff may continue to work, when it is unproductive to do so, in reach of their targets.

Furthermore, consider communications in the modern world. If an appropriate communications policy or culture is not enforced, out-of-hours communications may begin to wreak havoc; staff may feel obligated or, worse, forced to communicate during all hours.

Management style impacts heavily on their teams. Tactics such as micro-management, making work time-based and using negative motivation may instil a sense of fear or obligation in staff to attend their workplace when sick or try to over-perform. Overburdening a single team or team member, without support should performance become an issue, also has the potential to cause presenteeism to creep in.

From an employee perspective, the causes of presenteeism are often social in nature. Values and morals often play a part, as do ambition and pride. A sense of obligation to colleagues, fear of stigma and fear of missing out on developments in the office alter one’s mindset to favour work time.

Family problems and responsibilities, such as those that are financial, may push an employee to extend their work effort into the unproductive zone.

Recognising and Mitigating Presenteeism in the Workplace

Recognising presenteeism as a problem within the workplace can be achieved through qualitative and quantitative techniques. Some techniques include:

  • employee surveys
  • open discussions during one-to-one meetings and reviews
  • anonymous reporting
  • human resource metrics such as attendance reporting
  • operational metrics

The above list is non-exhaustive; a recognition strategy will depend on the business’s nature.

Mitigating and preventing presenteeism will require consideration at all layers of the organisation. Modern themes promote a culture that supports increased flexible working and trust in employees. Examples of practices include:

  • cultivating open dialogue
  • promoting well-being
  • encouraging trust
  • empowering employees; for example, using outcome-based methodologies, less bureaucracy and less micro-management
  • increasing flexibility for attendance, such as offering work from home, and suitable sickness policies
  • establishing patterns of work ownership that support fail-over
  • encouraging and providing access to life services such as financial advice and counselling

Empowering employees is prominent in modern themes that aim to mitigate presenteeism in the workplace. However, trusting teams and individuals to deliver outcome-based goals in a flexible environment will be a huge shift for some employers. It may involve restructuring with culture and policy change.

Plenty of businesses have already tried and tested these practices, especially in sectors such as software development and other project-based work environments. Therefore, successful practices have been published, and software has been developed to support transitions and new working methods.

Examples include companies such as Microsoft, who have recognised the demand for working from home and have adapted their productivity tools. For example, Microsoft 365 includes OneDrive, SharePoint and Teams to support collaboration between remote workers.

Aside from productivity tools, project management and human resource tools support the empowerment of teams and individuals. For example, absence management software can facilitate a self-service style of managing attendance based on team availability. This places each team member in a position where they can book their holidays responsibly based on the workload and the availability of another member. Further, it can support flexible working and absence policies, for example, through a mobile application that allows staff to register absence due to ill health without requiring a phone call to the office.

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