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The Office Culture Problem You Didn’t Know You Had: Presenteeism

Presenteeism—What’s That?
You might not know the term, but, trust us, you know presenteeism well. It’s the co-worker coughing and shivering in their cubicle, making you scrub your hands a bit longer on your bathroom breaks and hold your breath when you pass by them. It’s the employee who is going through a tough time and is in no place to perform at their best but felt like they should fight through it and show up. That’s presenteeism—when we forget we are, in fact, not machines and are very much humans who fight germs, fatigue, and all of life’s other ups and downs. Simply put, presenteeism is when we come to work when we should have just stayed at home.

Presenteeism is opposed by the more commonly understood issue of absenteeism—when an employee misses work without good reason. Presenteeism is, perhaps, more insidious. It can even be praised by some, leading to less work satisfaction, a negatively impacted performance, eventual burnout, and less efficiency for the entire team. These effects have a huge impact, yet this issue remains rarely discussed and often unmanaged.

If employees feel obligated to work through physical and mental difficulty, burnout and dissatisfaction can lead to issues such as a damaged work culture and high turnover rates.

The Presenteeism Challenge
While the potential impacts of presenteeism are enough to make management want to get a grip on the issue, it can be incredibly hard to gauge. Unlike the more obvious and tangible absenteeism, presenteeism is not so easy to detect. If an employee has made the choice to show up to work, leaders may assume that everything is fine. Unless they can take the time from all the other to-dos they must get done to closely study each employee, it is easy to miss that even though an employee is technically present, they’re not feeling their best, causing them to perform at a lower caliber and become more likely to make mistakes.

It’s clear that even though presenteeism can’t be tracked in absences or used-up time off, it has a very real cost. For example, individuals suffering from longer-term conditions can expect to see persistent drops in productivity. Again, we’re humans. In each cubicle and at every desk, there is someone fighting a unique battle and working through unique circumstances. By definition, employees contributing to presenteeism are giving everything they’ve got to perform at their best but are physically or mentally unable to do so.

What Are the Consequences?

  • Decreased productivity and efficiency, as sick employees cannot work to the best of their abilities
  • Staff member domino effect: If an illness spreads among workers, productivity may decrease further
  • Insufficient use of dangerous or heavy machinery can lead to serious health and safety risks
  • If employees feel obligated to work through physical and mental difficulty, burnout and dissatisfaction can lead to issues such as a damaged work culture and high turnover rates
  • Data even suggests that economic costs related to presenteeism exceed those of absenteeism and employer health costs

So … Yes, It’s a Big Deal. Here Are Some Steps You Can Take
It may be far from straightforward, but measuring presenteeism is how you begin. There are ways to empower employees to make good decisions with their health and well-being in mind.

  • Create Boundaries
    Setting boundaries in the workplace is an integral part of taking care of your employees’ well-being and establishing a healthy work-life balance. From boundaries on one’s time, emotional well-being, and beyond, setting clear boundaries gives employees a certain peace of mind and release from the pressure of doing more than necessary. This allows them to better contribute to the things they are absolutely needed for.
  • Lead by Example
    Leaders set the tone for their teams. Put simply, it’s up to you to lead by example and let employees know that they can do the same. Take time off to be with your family. Don’t send emails after or before work hours. Provide your team with support. Demonstrate the habits you want your team to follow.
  • Enact Wellness Programs
    Historically, employee health management programs have had the aim of reducing healthcare costs. The latest research shows that introducing wellness programs that extend beyond traditional benefits can have a positive effect on employee productivity by bolstering physical and mental well-being.
  • Provide Flexible Work Options
    As the pandemic has shown, the 9-to-5 workday is not the only way to operate—and it’s certainly not the way that all employees will operate at their very best. Those that juggle home and work responsibilities can struggle with strict work hours, leading to situations like showing up late, feeling stressed, and eventually being mentally exhausted or absent. Consider offering flexible working hours to allow employees time to take care of their personal needs.

Putting a Name on an Important Issue
While the word itself may be new vernacular, presenteeism is far from a new concept. We’ve all seen it, and perhaps many of us are culprits ourselves. Even if it’s not often discussed, presenteeism is a real and serious issue. When we bring this conversation to the table, we can begin to tackle presenteeism in order to see both employee satisfaction and overall productivity on an upward trend. Now’s the time for employers to work with employees to better understand their needs and concerns in order to promote a happy and healthy workplace culture where everyone is performing to the very best of their abilities.