What is Presenteeism?
Presenteeism is when employees go to work when they're feeling unwell. Debra Lerner, professor at Tufts University School of Medicine, told the Harvard Business Review that presenteeism was about "…people hanging in there when they get sick and trying to figure out ways to carry on despite their symptoms,". This will often impact productivity. The website E-days expands on this definition by adding that presenteeism can also occur when employees are regularly arriving early or staying late to do overtime. Both explanations of presenteeism emphasize visibility: the importance of showing up at the costs of output. Excessive use of overtime can also mean employee workload is too high. Many of us will be familiar with presenteeism. We may have seen it or experienced it ourselves. According to the Chartered Management Institute UK employees are three times as likely to go into the workplace unwell than call in sick.
Breathe HR expands on this. Using research conducted by Deloitte, they write that presenteeism costs the UK £29.3 billion and costs UK businesses three times as much as absenteeism. What's concerning is how incidences of presenteeism have tripled since 2010. This research was, of course, completed before the COVID-19 pandemic. The impact that long-COVID could have on employee health and productivity may become an issue for employers in the future.
Why is It Bad for Business?
Presenteeism affects productivity. Employees don't work as efficiently. Presenteeism can cost more than £4000 per employee per year. What's worse is that presenteeism is difficult to track. Unlike absenteeism, which is characterised by a physical absence, presenteeism is harder to spot. Poor mental health is often easier to hide than a physical ailment. Workers may feel uncomfortable confronting poor managers about untenable workloads. If difficulties at home or chronic health issues aren't discussed and shared with management, then employers may have no idea how or why productivity is dropping. When these types of situations go unchecked, it can lead to employees leaving the business, facing disciplinary action, or getting signed off work long-term.
What Causes It?
Croner.com lists several common reasons for presenteeism in the workplace. You may recognise a few in your own organisation.
- Employees want to save on sick days or holiday allowances.
- For a sense of job security.
- Out of loyalty to the job or co-workers.
- Pressure from supervisor or manager.
- No sick pay if the absence is less than four days.
- Financial worries.
- Depression, anxiety, stress and other mental health-related issues.
We would also add that freelance or self-employed employees don't get paid for the days they don't show up. Other employees may feel judged if they call in sick. Many workplaces have a culture of powering through minor illnesses. Chronic health conditions are long-term, and employees may not feel comfortable being honest about symptoms that can only be managed rather than cured.
Sometimes, the problems may be lifestyle-related. In its special report on the issue, The Financial Times listed poor nutrition, muscle-skeletal conditions, binge-drinking, inadequate sleep, inactivity, excessive drinking, high stress, obesity, smoking, financial concerns, and depression as being factors in presenteeism. We spend more than a third of our lives at work, so it's little wonder that there's such a crossover between work and health. Employees don't stop worrying about financial difficulties, grief, relationship problems, etc just because they're sitting at a computer.
Could Workplace Wellbeing Reduce the Impact of presenteeism?
Workplace wellbeing is concerned with the mental and physical wellbeing of employees. Some employers will roll their eyes at that, but the research suggests that focusing on workplace wellbeing not only makes employees more productive, but it can also make businesses more profitable, too. Organisations will approach wellbeing differently but it's about creating an environment where employees feel supported, valued and understood by their employer. Companies with good workplace wellbeing policies will have fostered a culture of open communication between employees and management. They may also have introduced initiatives and programmes designed to support employees mentally and emotionally. Improving workplace wellbeing can also mean making the working environment a more enjoyable place to be. In 2020, Deloitte published the results of a study that found that for every £1 spent on mental health interventions, they got £5 back in reduced absence and presenteeism, and lower staff turnover.
When employees care about the wellbeing of their employers, they create a safe space for people to talk about their concerns and problems. This can be done through a line manager or appointed wellness officer. It can also be done through regular wellbeing surveys or conversations between colleagues. Signposting employees to relevant services can help, too. Communication is vital in finding a solution before an employee burns out, takes long-term sick leave, or exits the business entirely. For example, if an employee is struggling with headaches, is there something you could do about their monitor? If an employee has elderly parents and is responsible for caring for them, could they work flexible hours? Measuring workplace wellbeing can help, too. This gives you a base number to work from and allows you track any improvements. It also means you can see the areas of your business where wellbeing is low. For example, it does little good to arrange a social night out when you have a staff burnout problem due to workload.
You may be surprised to read that exercise also has an impact on presenteeism. According to Workplace Movement, employees that don't get enough exercise are more likely to fall victim to presenteeism than those employees who get some level of physical activity. Today's modern workforce is mostly inactive. The typical working day is long and overburdened employees may find it difficult to keep up with physical exercise. Fortunately, offices don't have to build an expensive gym. If your business is also working on a sustainability strategy (something else that improves employee morale), then you could install a couple of electricity-generating indoor bikes. Even a small amount of exercise can reduce anxiety, improve productivity, and beat the post-lunch slump that so many of us suffer from. Something else that can be a total productivity killer.