Problems of Presenteeism

Absenteeism is a well-known problem for employers, and has probably been so for as long as the concept of employment has existed. For example, there is an Ancient Egyptian document from more than three thousand years ago which lists which workers are absent due to illness!

Unplanned absences disrupt the workforce, can cause rota difficulties for managers, and can overload other employees’ workloads. This can then lead to a decrease in overall productivity of the staff, along with reduced morale for the staff who need to cover the absent person, and even affect the financial bottom line through sick pay, overtime or temporary staff.

These disadvantages are well-known. There are many ways to try and alleviate these effects by minimising absences, ranging from not paying staff for sick days under the statutory limit to giving rewards for exemplary attendance, to providing staff with access to mental health services. The return-to-work interview is a commonly used and effective tool to help employers understand the absences in their workplace.

However, there is a close-cousin to the problem of absenteeism, which is less known about and often taken far less seriously: presenteeism.

This is a term used to describe employees who come into work when they are not physically or mentally well enough.

Employers with a punitive attitude to absences can accidentally encourage this behaviour, by making employees frightened to take any time off, or employees themselves can have a “If I can physically get to work then I should, because anything else is laziness,” type of attitude.

Research has proven that employees are less productive when they are not fit, and are also likely to make more mistakes and be less engaged and driven. Not only do ill employees risk spreading their infection to coworkers, and thus creating more troubles for the employer, an employee who is demotivated due to mental health issues may accidentally be making their coworkers lose morale.

These effects are even more damaging when the presentee is a manager. A manager who is not capable of providing timely direction and feedback to their employees, who ignores emails and skips meetings because they ‘don’t feel up to them’, will end up making their team feel frustrated, disrespected and disconnected from the wider business. If not corrected, this can lead to employees leaving.

This can all have a slow but devastating effect on overall business performance.

In the recent CIPD survey on health and wellbeing at work, 83% of private sector respondents said that staff work when unwell, and only a third of those respondents have taken action over this.

The report suggested that management is a key reason for disengagement with the damaging effects of presenteeism, as only 40% of organisations surveyed provide any training or guidance for managers in spotting the signs of presenteeism. Without training, managers may be prone to falling into ‘bums in seats is what matters’ thought patterns, and believing that any work that the employee gets done is better than them not being present.

The way to start solving this issue is to have a robust employee wellbeing system – not just free gym membership and vouchers, but an understanding that being absent from the workplace is not a disaster and should not be automatically ‘punished’ by punitive procedures. Encourage regular breaks and an open relationship between employees and their managers. Train managers in the detrimental effects of presenteeism, and in how to spot the signs.