What is presenteeism? And how to stop it

Image by Marten Bjork on Unsplash. Thanks Marten.

What is presenteeism?

Presenteeism is when employees are at work, but can’t perform their tasks effectively due to illness, fatigue, or other health issues.

It’s increasingly common nowadays to wake up feeling ill, overwhelmed or burnt out, and to still soldier on into work thinking it’ll be for the best. The cruel irony is that coming into work whilst you’re unwell is far more damaging than staying in bed – for employees and employers alike…

The issue with presenteeism

For employees

Presenteeism can have disastrous effects for employees – like increased stress, exhaustion, and burnout, as they struggle to meet their work demands while dealing with health issues. This can worsen the existing health issue, making the problem spiral out of control. Presenteeism also increases the chance of workplace accidents – who wants to come to work with a cold and leave with a broken arm?

For employers

Presenteeism costs businesses 4X more than absenteeism. Let that sink in.

How does this happen? Well, it reduces productivity, lowers the quality of work, and can result in missed deadlines, reduced sales, and increased customer complaints.

Presenteeism is also a morale killer – employees who are suffering won’t be in good spirits, employees who perceive their co-workers as slacking can feel resentful, and managers could easily misread the reason their secretly-ill team member’s making mistakes or falling behind.

What causes presenteeism?

There are many causes of presenteeism, but one of the main ones is the pressure employees feel to show up for work, even when they really don’t feel up to it. This can be for many reasons, like fear of disciplinary action, concerns about job security, or even not wanting to fall behind on their work.

The workplace culture can also play a big part in presenteeism – for example, a company that emphasises long hours and constant availability can make employees feel they need to be at work at all times regardless of their health, even if this isn’t what their employers would really want.

There’s overwhelming data to suggest that employees need a hell of a lot more reassurance that taking days off is okay – just look at some of the common questions asked on Google:

Can I take a sick day

Can I take a sick day for mental health

Can I take a sick day for a migraine

Can I take a sick day for my period

Can I take a sick day for my child

Can I take a sick day for a cold

Can I take a sick day for a hospital appointment

Can you take a sick day before a holiday

Can you take a sick day as holiday

(This last one is more common than you think, too – 36% of UK employees have taken allocated time off for health issues rather than calling in sick!)

So how do you reduce presenteeism?

Reducing presenteeism involves addressing both the underlying causes and the symptoms of the problem. Here are some strategies employers can use:

Encouraging employees to take time off

Telling employees to go home when they’re not feeling well (and leading by example when you’re not so hot yourself!) cultivates a culture where ‘work-life balance’ is more than a buzzword. Phrase. Buzzphrase?

Stemming the dread (technical term)

Ever taken a sick day or few and come back to a mountain of work so large it made you wonder why you ever allowed yourself to be ill? We’ve all been there. Putting resources in place to help employees manage their workload when they come back in will stop them from just ‘soldiering on’ through the sickness.

Addressing the issue head on

Talk about it with employees! If you’ve ever fallen prey to presenteeism, hold your hands up to it and talk about what made you feel you should come in when you were unwell. Ask others if they’ve ever felt like this and see what their reasons were, then work on addressing the common causes and reassuring employees they needn’t worry.

That’s it for this one! Fancy a bit of light reading on absenteeism?


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