What is Presenteeism in The Workplace?

Just like the regular issues with managing a business, absenteeism is an unavoidable part of working life. But when it comes to understanding employee health, absence is only one side of the story.

Have you ever had to “power through” a workday with unbearable physical or mental distress? If so, you’ve experienced presenteeism. Presenteeism refers to the act of showing up for work while being unproductive due to illness. Unfortunately, this trend is nothing novel in modern workplaces as countless employees battle through their days despite feeling ill.

Even with the regular monitoring of employee sickness absence, more subtle levels of presence while ill often goes unnoticed. This explains why according to the CIPD’s latest findings on absenteeism, almost a third of all organizations have experienced an uptick in people showing up to work unwell.


Functional vs. Dysfunctional Presenteeism

Companies that set unreasonable deadlines, demand an excessive amount of work from their staff, or put too much pressure on employees are likely to foster a workplace culture of presenteeism. This is because when there’s increased strain in the workplace, workers will often feel like they must be seen to be busy, resulting in overwork and exhaustion.

Sadly, presenteeism is more frequent in white-collar companies, particularly legal firms or similar organizations where junior staff members are treated like expendable resources and expectations are too high. But this doesn’t mean that it only occurs there. Any business can succumb to its harmful effects.

Even if you are trying to meet a tight deadline or your cold is minor, it’s important to acknowledge the distinction between being functional while at work and being functionally impaired due to an illness.

Let’s break down functional vs. dysfunctional presenteeism:

  • Functional Presenteeism: This form of presenteeism is more sustainable. Employees can meet the deadline while remaining available to their employer for support if needed. This version of presenteeism isn’t based on feeling forced but rather on a reasonable expectation that allows them access to all the necessary resources.
  • Dysfunctional Presenteeism: We can view this as a more dangerous form of presenteeism when the worker’s health and productivity are being jeopardized in order to fulfill demands.

If workers are engaging in functional presenteeism, it is essential that employers understand how to make sure their team feels secure and unencumbered, so they won’t be working beyond what is healthy. However, when employees display dysfunctional presenteeism in the office environment, it’s up to management to put a stop to this behavior for the betterment of productivity.


Why Should Employers Care About Presenteeism in The Workplace?

While some might argue that showing up to work ill is a sign of dedication, the truth remains that sick employees will likely be unproductive and could make costly errors. This means more time must be spent rectifying mistakes instead of tackling tasks efficiently and productively, making it an overall detriment to business operations.

In truth, the amount of work absentees misses out on pales in comparison to the lost productivity felt due to presenteeism in the workplace. A report by the Work Foundation recently revealed that workplace costs from presenteeism could be more than one-and-a-half times those of sick leave. This makes it evident just how substantial an impact employee attendance has on overall efficiency.

Employers who witness elevated presenteeism are nearly twice as likely to detect an increase in stress-related absences and more than double the likelihood of detecting a rise in employee mental health issues. Furthermore, working while unwell can lead to higher levels of employee sick leave over time.


The True Costs of Presenteeism

Dysfunctional presenteeism is not only detrimental to employees, but it’s also damaging to businesses. In particular, presenteeism can be responsible for:

  • Spreading illnesses to coworkers by passing on viruses and diseases
  • Causing stress to accumulate rather than dissipate, especially if it is prolonged
  • Developing mental health problems
  • Productivity loss and increase burnout over time
  • Amplified error rates
  • Causing increased employee turnover

While companies may be tempted to ignore presenteeism in pursuit of completing tasks, this is unsustainable and damaging. Overworking employees leads them to feel resentment towards the company and their job, ultimately harming both people, the business, and its reputation in the long run. Presenteeism is a chronic condition that must be addressed quickly before it inflicts further harm on all involved parties.


What Causes Presenteeism?

Employers often place unrealistic standards on their employees, instilling a sense of insecurity around employer loyalty or job security that leads to presenteeism. Further contributing to this phenomenon are large workloads, understaffing, heavy time restrictions, and an environment where being ill is not seen as acceptable. Ultimately, these factors combine to form the issue of presenteeism in many workplaces today. In its extreme form, presenteeism can actually result from organizational harassment or discrimination, which forces employees to avoid taking sick days.

Thus, what is the cause? In companies where long working hours are considered common and operational needs override worker health, presenteeism increases. It’s also regularly a consequence of job insecurity and has been connected to redundancies. Research reveals that organizations expecting layoffs over the next half-year have twice as many people coming into work unwell than usual.

In our current remote work setting, employees luckily don’t have to battle with getting out of bed and making the trek into the office when feeling ill. Yet, unfortunately, signs of presenteeism still exist in this environment. The truth is, if you’re ill, there’s no point forcing yourself to show up. Instead of sitting at your desk with your camera off, take the time to get better. Stay in bed and log off until you’re feeling healthy again. Recovering properly will be more beneficial for everyone in the long run.

In comparison to absenteeism, presenteeism could be viewed as the exact opposite. When an individual habitually does not arrive for work as scheduled or takes too many days off, it is classified as absenteeism. Whereas presenteeism entails appearing for work even when ill. Interestingly, although the symptoms may have opposite results, their underlying causes can be similar. These include mental health conditions, familial troubles, community issues, problems with a coworker or supervisor, as well as overall poor health.


How to Deal with Presenteeism in Your Workforce

By managing presenteeism, companies not only save money in the long term but also foster employee engagement and efficiency. To help you lower sickness presence at your workplace, here are a few simple steps to implement.


Don’t Favor Input and Ignore Output

At some workplaces, turning up to work while feeling unwell is viewed as a sign of commitment and reliability. However, this creates unhealthy pressure on team leaders, forcing them to power through their illness in order for the job to be done correctly. Doing so significantly reduces employee morale and can have serious effects on physical and mental health. As such, emphasize that your organization expects sick employees to take time off from work in order for them to recover properly.


Review Your Policies

Focusing on sick leave alone in absence management policies may give an incomplete view of reduced productivity suffered by business’ due to health-related issues. Punitive sick leave regulations, in particular, can be counterproductive as they could stop employees from taking time off when necessary and result in absenteeism being replaced with presenteeism instead.

It is essential that your line managers understand the link between absenteeism and presenteeism, as well as be supported in their efforts to take on a more flexible attitude towards absence. They should also offer assistance to employees who are coming back from an illness or injury before going back to work.


Be Aware of What Triggers an Increase in Presenteeism

It can be difficult for employees to take the leave time they need when their workload demands are high, as there is often the fear of missing deadlines or overburdening one’s colleagues. It is, therefore, vital that line managers possess both managerial awareness and soft skills in order to reduce work-related stress levels and improve employee well-being by facilitating a healthy balance between tasks and providing adequate support where needed. By doing so, organizations will create a positive working environment that encourages productivity while maintaining mental health standards.


Recognizing Symptoms

Employees who face physical or mental health-related issues are often hesitant to discuss their condition with management. Sadly, when they do disclose this information, it is quite rare for a manager to have the necessary training and resources to provide them with proper support. That’s why it is essential that your managers are educated in identifying signs of stress and mental health issues among employees in order for them to have open and supportive conversations about an employee’s well-being if one does come forward.


Assess Your Company’s Wellness Programs

Studies have revealed that inadequate financial well-being among employees can decrease organizational productivity by as much as 4%. Do your business’s wellness programs account for the stresses your workforce experiences both at work and out of it? A policy crafted with cognizance of mental, physical, social, and financial pressures, along with offering applicable assistance, will certainly help to reduce presenteeism’s effect.

Exercise, counseling, and financial management programs can help prevent mental health issues and ease the impact of chronic conditions. Additionally, access to healthcare options for common issues like sleep disorders or allergies could significantly increase people’s productivity levels.


Don’t Let Presenteeism Shape the Future of Workplace Productivity

If you’re unfamiliar with presenteeism, it’s time to add it to your list of concerns. By adjusting manager training and rectifying detrimental elements within the workplace atmosphere, you can strengthen employee healthiness and morale for years ahead.


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The Union Workforce Initiative is for educational, training, and awareness purposes only. This is not an Employee Assistance Program. We help build awareness within the workforces of employer/employee assistance professionals, substance abuse professionals, nurses, doctors, and other educational professionals.