Workplace Wellness

What is Presenteeism in the Workplace and How to Prevent It

Written by Ameer

Have you ever worked at a place where everything felt sluggish? You know, when it feels like someone’s sucked the energy out of the room, and it’s tough to be productive and focused? But you’re still there, at your desk or workspace, for hours and hours at a time.

Well that’s the presenteeism issue in a nutshell!

Presenteeism is defined as “the the lost productivity and performance of an employee, or group of employees, when they show up to work sick, exhausted, or too distracted by their personal issues to focus on their workload”. They may be physically there, but not present in the moment!

It’s not fair to play the blame game on any specific person, or employee when you notice presenteeism. That’s because we live in such an incredibly complex world, that the presenteeism issue is bound to rear its ugly head from time to time.

That being said, there are most definitely ways to gauge presenteeism in the workplace, and ways to prevent it as well.

Read on to learn more about this topic! Click on the sections below to jump right to your specific question.

What is Presenteeism and What Causes It?

Presenteeism is closely related to absenteeism. The distinction is that absenteeism is defined as the failure to report for, or remain at work as regularly scheduled. People exhibiting absenteeism are scheduled to work, but they don’t show up for work or they don’t stay fur the duration of their work day.

Absenteeism doesn’t include scheduled paid time off (or scheduled unpaid time off), but it does include unplanned time off such as excessive sick days.

But presenteeism is more difficult to understand and change. We typically see presenteeism manifest in three ways:

  • Employee attends work, even when they are sick
  • Employee is putting in long hours, but not actually productive the entire time (sometimes referred to as “face time”)
  • Employee is working at a reduced level, because of other distractions (ex., problems at home, depression or mental illness, health issues, or just not interested in work itself)

The main idea here is that the individual cannot pay enough attention to their job or tasks due to either internal or external forces. We will cover more on the factors that lead to presenteeism below, and that will clarify the definition further.

Cost of Presenteeism is at-least 6x more than Absenteeism

According to research from the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), absenteeism costs US employers a reported $225.8 billion annually (or $1,685 per employee). To contrast, researchers at the Global Corporate Challenge studied workplace data found that employees are absent from work an average of 4 days per work, but employees confessed to being unproductive (presenteeism) on the job for 57.5 days in a year (almost 3 working months, per year). The same study estimated that presenteeism ends up costing US employers $1,500 billion per year. Presenteeism has also tripled since 2010, so it’s important to pay attention to this building trend.

What leads to Presenteeism, and who is prone to It?

It’s tough to manage presenteeism, as it usually slips by in the regular day-to-day grind. However, there are some common factors that lead to higher chances of presenteeism:

  • Saving up time-off: Some people consider it a badge of honour to save up their time off, probably to show their boss that they are dedicated to work. But the fatigue of work, and day to day life just builds up this way.
  • Pressure from company culture: Some people fear that taking sick time off, or taking their vacation days/leave will make them look less committed to their job (and their boss will notice). So people don’t take time off so that they don’t get fired, or miss out on promotions and pay-raises. This results in exhausted and overworked people.
  • Heavy workloads: People with heavy workloads avoid taking time off, because they don’t want to burden co-workers with their job duties, or come back to a heavy backlog of work.
  • Little or no paid sick days: In organizations where there is little to no paid sick days (typically in blue-collar professions), workers will show up to work even when they are not feeling well, so that they can avoid the loss of pay.
  • Loyalty to the team: Some people don’t take time off because they want to make sure the team is a well-oiled machine. They fear taking time off will cause an informal imbalance, and will negatively impact everyone. This is done in good faith, but ends up costing the team dearly.
  • Health: People who experiencing poor health or medical concerns are more likely to report presenteeism.
  • Importance of Role in the Company: People with more demanding jobs are more likely to engage in presenteeism, likely due to the physical workload or stress levels.
  • Temporary vs. Permanent Employment: People employed with permanent positions are more prone to presenteeism than people employed with seasonal or temporary positions (usually hourly paid roles). This is likely because they have job security, and less need to prove their value to the company.
  • Industry: People working in the healthcare/medical, welfare, or education industries are more likely to engage in presenteeism.
  • Stressful Jobs: People with stressful jobs often have higher levels of presenteeism than others.

How does Presenteeism impact the Workplace?

The effects of presenteeism compound over time.

Productivity loss is the major impact of presenteeism. It’s easier to see the impact of absenteeism, but the impacts of presenteeism lurk in the shadows. There’s a reason why presenteeism costs organizations 6x more than absenteeism! According to Statistics Canada, lost productivity from presenteeism was 7.5 times greater than the productivity loss from absenteeism.

Another major impact of presenteeism is exhaustion and possibility of poor health in the future. When people don’t take time off (paid time off, or un-paid time off), they become increasingly exhausted. So a workforce that is exhausted makes itself more susceptible to illnesses (major or minor).And with roles involving manual labor, exhausted workers leads to higher chances of occupational injuries.

This bad habit can also spread illness at work! When sick people don’t take time off, there is a huge risk that the infected individual will spread their sickness to colleagues.

The good news: a recent study found that presenteeism costs businesses 10 times more than absenteeism…but is easier to fix. That’s why it’s important to create a cultural shift that prevents presenteeism as much as possible, but more on that later! Work and resource planning tools like Toggl Plan make it easy to manage a flexible work environment.

How to Detect Presenteeism in the Workplace?

Now that we’ve talked about what presenteeism is, and it’s unfortunate impacts, we’ll discuss a few ways that you can use to prevent presenteeism in your organization! By keeping a pro-active gauge on presenteeism, it is easier for organizations to manage this hidden productivity zapper.

1. Anonymous Pulse Surveys: This is a great way to collect real-time anonymous data from your team. Remember all of the factors that lead to presenteeism? Our team can set you up with a custom pulse survey built to detect those factors of a presenteeism culture.

2. Monitoring Quality of Work: This method requires a lot more time, but still a great way to detect presenteeism. Psychologists recommend setting a benchmark of behavior and performance for employees. This qualitative gauge will let managers see how employees behave under “normal” conditions, and make it easy to see variances from the norm. So if an employee (or team) is usually quite productive, but hasn’t been producing at the same level for the recent time period, it may be a sign of presenteeism.

3. Speaking to Your Team: We’re all human at the end of the day. So it’s good to sit down with your team from time to time (or independently with everyone, if that’s more comfortable), get their feedback, and help them manage any external issue. The benefit of this method is that you’re further building your relationship with the team, and the open vulnerability that is created will enhance the personal/team chemistry.

How to Reduce or Prevent Presenteeism?

Presenteeism is definitely preventable, or can at-least be drastically reduced by using some best practices. The ROI from these methods will not only prevent presenteeism, but it will also improve the workplace culture. Side note, research shows that a strong, positive, and wellness centric culture, with a focus on health and happiness, can:

  • Enhance employee engagement by 30%,
  • Add 10 more productive days per year for each employee
  • Result in up to a 19% increase in operating income
  • Provide a 28% increase in earnings growth!

1. Communicate the Need to Be Present & Allow Flexibility: It’s easiest to set the expectation up front with your team that when they are at work (or work from home), everyone should be present in the moment. When there aren’t any clear guidelines given to the team, that is an open invitation for presenteeism to creep in.

Setting clear expectations may not be enough, especially in todays day and age where the battle for talent is at its height. That’s why it’s important for organizations to get with the times and be flexible with their employees. Here are some best practices for creating a flexible work environment:

  • Generous Vacation Time:By giving the team generous vacation time/leave, it gives a clear signal that management is driven to create a culture of trust and mutual respect. This is guaranteed to get a positive response, and will likely lead to a more motivated team as well!
  • Results Only Work Environment (ROWE): Measuring success by performance, results, or output, not by the number of hours worked (where possible). This is especially powerful for younger generations who don’t quite grasp the concept of “face-time”.
  • Remote Work: Creating an opportunity for the team to work from home (where possible) on some regular schedule will boost spirits. This will be especially useful as we embrace this “new normal” where everyone is reintegrating into everyday life.
  • Time Agnostic Work: Being flexible with the team, and allowing them to set their own hours (ex., earlier start, or later start) in line with the ROWE environment (where possible). Again, this just builds on creating the culture of trust, and mutual respect. This is contrast with the traditional workplace where hours worked are standardized.

2. Create a Workplace Culture of Wellness: In order to promote workplace wellness, and all of its benefits, we need management to care about employees and support them to achieve what counts for them. Here are a few ways to create a Wellness Culture in your organization:

  • Buy In to Wellness Culture from the Grassroots to Management: The grassroots level support for wellness is always there, but the team won’t value it as much, or be able to relate unless they have buy-in from leaders. Change happens when everyone is on-board!
  • Create Conditions that allow the team to shine: Creating a healthy environment where employees feel that they are recognized for their strives towards wellness. Positive reinforcement is an awesome response from leaders towards promoting a Culture of Wellness!
  • Reach people at their level: Not everyone is going to run a marathon, or become a body-builder. We need to make wellness accessible for everyone, and let them pick and choose which aspects of wellness they want to focus on. Another component, is creating resources that the team can rely on to educate themselves on wellness. Check out our blog post about what a practice of wellness really means!

3. Management leading by example: Tying it all together in a complete picture, if management leads by example, it might be the easiest, most effective, and practical method to prevent presenteeism. That means that management should:

  • Take days off when they are sick, or feeling sickness
  • Use their vacation time/leave regularly (not letting it build up)
  • Focus on Wellness
  • Being present in the moment
  • Creating a culture conducive to Flexibility

In conclusion, presenteeism can have a big impact on any business. That being said, it is important to be pro-active address factors leading up to presenteeism, rather than being reactive. When leaders commit to creating a Wellness Culture, the risk of presenteeism is significantly mitigated!

More Reading

Interested in what wellness benefits look like? Check out the “How to Maximize Engagement with Wellness Challenges” for practical advice to foster employee engagement and boost morale through employee wellness challenges.

Want to learn more about corporate wellness? Take our three-part Wellness Foundations Webinar Series for HR managers. It’s a kickstart for anyone who wants (or needs) to dive head first into the industry. 

Interested in speaking with a benefits expert for more one-on-one support? Schedule an introductory call with IncentFitWe’ll learn a bit more about your company’s unique needs and point you in the right direction.