A migraine that comes out of nowhere. A bout with anxiety that you didn’t see coming. A phone call from a physician with less-than-ideal news.
Unfortunately, these are all parts of life that are sometimes unavoidable and they tend to result in an unproductive workday. These things can really throw a wrench into our to-do lists, regardless of how minor or trivial they seem. Worse, they can result in presenteeism in the workplace, causing productivity to dip.
What is presenteeism?
Presenteeism is the loss of productivity that happens when an employee isn’t working to their fullest potential, or isn’t able to perform their work duties, because of a physical, mental, or emotional issue that is causing them to suffer.
Presenteeism happens when an employee is physically at work or their desk, but is unable to carry out any of their responsibilities and has a higher likelihood of making mistakes in their role. When it comes to presenteeism, it’s important to keep in mind that an employee exhibiting signs of presenteeism is trying to give their best efforts, but for one reason or another, are unable physically or mentally to be their most productive self.
One of the main issues with presenteeism is that a manager often can struggle to see the productivity gap that an employee is exhibiting as clearly as they can when an employee is absent from work. Unlike absenteeism, when an employee is frequently absent from work or missing due to an illness, presenteeism can be a much larger problem in the workplace.
Signs of presenteeism
As an HR professional, department manager, or team leader, there are specific signs of presenteeism that you can watch out for from your team or fellow employees. If you notice any of these, your co-worker may be suffering from presenteeism.
The first sign of presenteeism in the workplace from a team member is when you consistently notice they’re sick, ill, or in poor health, but are still at work. When a coworker constantly comes into work feeling unwell, not only will it likely take them longer to recover from their illness, but they could spread it to other members of the team, too.
Keep an eye out for a high number of employees coming to work looking tired or having signs of an illness, like a cough, runny nose, or mentioning having a headache, as these can be signs of presenteeism.
Low absence rate
Do you remember when our middle school or elementary school teachers used to give out awards for perfect attendance? There’s a reason why companies don’t pass out the same award, as this can also be a sign of presenteeism.
While yes, it can also mean a coworker is consistently healthy and happy at work, if the majority of the staff all has a low absence rate, which can be tracked by managers and HR professionals using absence management software, there’s a chance that something is off with one or multiple company policies.
Think about how you feel when you’re suffering from an illness, depression, or exhaustion. It’s very hard to keep your spirits high. The same can be said for your employees. If you notice a decline in their morale, this could also affect other areas of the organization, like the overall culture and well-being.
Additionally, low morale can be contagious, meaning if one employee is exhibiting signs of diminished morale, others could pick up on these habits and start showing them, too.
Loss in productivity and motivation
Often, when an employee has low morale, it’s paired with a loss in productivity and motivation. Even your highest-performing employee will likely struggle for motivation and the ability to knock tasks off their to-do list when they’re not feeling their best or are suffering from health problems.
As a manager, be sure to check in with your employees if you notice signs of presenteeism. Ask if they’re feeling enthusiastic about their job or the things they need to do throughout the day. This can help you recognize productivity loss and a dip in motivation while finding ways to help.
An increased amount of mistakes
Everyone makes mistakes. But employees are likely to make more than usual when they’re not feeling present at work or if they’re constantly thinking about something else. Their attention to detail will slip, and there’s an increased likelihood of mistakes, from the little things to major instances.
Working long hours
The occasional 10 hour day or 50+ hour work week happens, especially if your team is coming together to hit an important deadline or goal. However, when an employee feels sick or under the weather at work, they won’t be spending their time as efficiently or as productive as they usually would. This could force them into working long hours to meet their deadlines.
While some companies may feel that coming into the office early and staying late may be a sign of working hard and loving their job, it could also indicate that an employee is struggling to get their work done because of health issues.
Consider the physical health of that employee the next time you notice them staying late or arriving before anyone else.
Presenteeism and mental health
A lot of times, presenteeism is tied to employees being physically ill or suffering from an injury. However, the ties between presenteeism, mental health, and mental illness in general cannot be ignored.
Many factors play into the mental health of employees, whether it be pressures at home or from their family, stress, or diagnosed mental health conditions, they can all play a part in presenteeism. If an employee is taking time off work and managing absences from surgery or from a physical illness that others can see, it’s much less frowned upon than those needed to take time off because of poor mental health.
Managers and HR professionals must consider that just because they can’t see a physical illness when dealing with an employee, that doesn’t mean they aren’t experiencing a decline in their mental health.
Reasons for presenteeism in the workplace
Presenteeism in the workplace doesn't just happen – some specific reasons and causes make it more common, and by the same measure, more of a problem.
For starters, an employee could be showing signs of presenteeism because they’re saving their time off. Maybe they have an upcoming vacation planned, a medical procedure around the corner, or are planning to grow their family soon. Instead of taking a day off when they need it, they are instead choosing to come into work so they can save up, or accrue, the time off they need for something else.
You’re probably thinking… why don’t they take a sick day? An employee can only take a sick day if they have sick leave to take. If an organization is only offering a limited amount of sick days, sick employees could be forced to come in when they’re not feeling their best. This could be because they’re worried they’ll feel worse later and will need to take the sick day then, or they’ve used up all of their sick days and don’t have a choice but to come in.
Another reason an employee may be showing signs of presenteeism is due to loyalty to their team. While yes, you want an employee who loves their job, is committed to their team, and wants to come in and work on projects or assignments, you also want someone who can give the workday their all, be productive, and put their own needs first. That won’t happen if they’re suffering from presenteeism.
Think about your star employee. The one you always turn to when an assignment needs to get done fast. Or the one you always ask to come up with a solution when things go wrong. As a manager, think about the workload you’re putting on your team members. A heavy workload could be the reason why an employee is showing signs of presenteeism. They may feel like they can't afford to miss work because of how much is on their plate, which could cause them to come to work on a day they're not feeling their best.
Finally, an employee could be showing signs of presenteeism because they fear consequences of missing work or they have job insecurity. Have there been whispers of layoffs or a reduction in force around the corner at your organization? Or maybe there has been a general shakeup in staffing recently and they’re unsure of their job security. For these reasons, an employee could worry that missing work could put them on the chopping block down the line as a reason to be let go.
Consequences of presenteeism
While some may think that the more staff who are physically at work the better, there are actually numerous consequences of presenteeism that your organization will want to try and avoid.
For starters, the cost of presenteeism is high when it comes to productivity, which in turn will cost your organization money. When an employee is coming into work despite being injured, sick, stressed, or feeling run down, the impact of presenteeism is severe. There will be a clear productivity gap between team members who are coming into work feeling happy and healthy, and those who are struggling mentally or physically.
Additionally, the mistakes that we previously mentioned an employee suffering from presenteeism can make also cost an organization. It would simply be better off if that employee took the time to heal and was absent.
Another consequence of presenteeism is that an employee could be prolonging, or making their health even worse, by coming into work and attempting to do their job when what they really need is to rest. This will only lengthen the amount of time that an employee is working while feeling a loss in productivity as well as increasing the likelihood of spreading their physical illness to others.
How to reduce presenteeism
If you’ve noticed presenteeism from your employees, there are ways an organization can reduce the likelihood of it happening in the future to improve employee health.
Change in culture
The first place your company should start when looking to tackle presenteeism is their workplace culture. This culture plays a big part in the behavior of your employees and the decisions they make. Examine the company culture and see if you can identify anything that may be causing your team to exhibit signs of burnout and presenteeism.
For example, ask yourself the following questions when taking a look at your company’s culture.
- Are those who take advantage of sick days or the paid time off policy criticized, looked down upon, or judged?
- Are new parents returning from maternity or paternity leave early because of job insecurity?
- How difficult is it for employees to take the time off they need because of health issues?
As a part of your organization’s human capital management strategy, make sure that the culture of your company is one you are proud of that puts your employees’ needs first.
Start a well-being program
Another great way to reduce presenteeism and improve your team’s mental health is by implementing a well-being program or various wellness programs with a built-out policy in place to support stresses employees face both inside and outside of work.
Consider all social, mental, physical, and financial stresses your team may face that could cause presenteeism. Then, offer appropriate support and programs to reduce the impact. Whether it’s a program that promotes and encourages exercise, counseling, additional healthcare providers and services, or financial management, these programs can go a long way to prevent illnesses and lessen the impact of stressful situations.
If you aren’t sure the kind of programs that your team would benefit from the most, offer a questionnaire or send an anonymous survey to learn more.
3 in 5
employees are not receiving adequate support from supervisors to help manage stress.
Source: Mental Health America
Redo your policies
It’s common for businesses to utilize absence management software as a way to track attendance and sick leave. When you do, you can use the data to take a better look at the behavior of your employees. You can then apply it to your policies and see if your sick leave or paid time off policy is doing more harm than good.
Additionally, if you do decide to redo company policies, take the time to make sure managers understand any changes and can properly communicate them with their departments and direct reports.
Provide a flexible work schedule
Some employees may need to take an entire day off work to avoid presenteeism, while others may simply need to readjust their work schedule or work pattern. Your company must provide a flexible work schedule that can work towards the strengths of all of your staff. This could be allowing them to work from home or shift to different working hours. It’s all about maximizing their productivity and supporting whatever works for their mental health.
Promote work-life balance
To ensure your company doesn’t have a culture of presenteeism, it needs to promote a solid and healthy work-life balance. A great place to start here is to take a look at what C-suite employees and managers do. Are they coming to work sick? If yes, their team will notice and think they have to come into work feeling ill, too.
The same can be said for answering emails or direct managers after hours. If managers and top-level employees are answering messages after working hours, or when they’re enjoying time away from the office, other members of the team will think this behavior is needed to climb the corporate ladder.
How to measure presenteeism
Even if you know the signs of presenteeism, it can still be hard to know for sure if your coworkers or team members are experiencing it. To determine if they are, consider sending out a work limitations questionnaire (WLQ) to get direct feedback from employees.
This can include questions like:
In the past two weeks, how much time did your physical health or emotional problems make it difficult to do the following:
- Do your work without stopping to take breaks or rest
- Stick to a routine or schedule
- Walk or move around the office
- Use handheld tools or equipment
Questions like these, as well as the answers your team provides, can give you a better idea of whether or not they’re experiencing presenteeism.
Put presenteeism on your radar
No matter the size of your organization or the industry it's within, it's crucial for the success of the company, as well as the success of the individual employee, to understand the signs of presenteeism and how it can impact the business. Making the appropriate changes to the company culture, paid time off policies, and management training can all have a hugely positive impact toward minimizing presenteeism and giving employees the freedom to take the time off they need.
After all, you want your employees happy, healthy, and feeling their best. When they’re experiencing presenteeism, they’re feeling the opposite.
Get started combating presenteeism at your organization by ensuring you're offering enough paid time off to your employees.