And a lot of the time, it works. Looking from the outside, you’d likely think these workers were among your best employees. But if you were to look closely at their output, you’d see there isn’t much productive work to show for.
And that's exactly what presenteeism is—the illusion that an employee is working hard, when they really aren't.
Let’s dive into presenteeism—what it is, why it’s a problem (for starters, it’s one of the leading causes of employee unproductivity), and, most importantly, how to better manage it.
What is Presenteeism?
Presenteeism is when employees seem dedicated to their job and like they’re working hard when they really aren't.
At a workplace, that could mean sitting at their desk—come rain or shine—despite how sick or unwell they feel. They may even still arrive early and stay late while struggling with flare-ups of a chronic condition.
For remote work, employees might stay online longer or respond to emails at all hours, even if they aren’t accomplishing much.
Just how far does presenteeism go? Employees lose an average of four days to absenteeism but nearly three working months to presenteeism. When it comes to cost, employers lost 10x more with presenteeism than with absenteeism.
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Common Causes of Presenteeism
There are many different causes for presenteeism culture. Some of the most common for office workers include:
- Office culture: In high-pressure office environments, employees often feel duty-bound to work long hours—even when in poor health or injured.
- Limited number of sick days: Employees clock in when they should be resting to save their sick days in case they need them in the future. For example, parents might save their sick days for when their children are ill—and show up to work when they’re experiencing health problems themselves.
- Loyalty to their team: Employees worry about their absence's consequences on their teams. They may have meetings or presentations when no one’s available to take their place.
- Uncertainty: Many fear that missing work could jeopardize their job security.
For remote workers, some of the biggest drivers of digital presenteeism include:
- The desire to be digitally visible at all times: Employees may feel the need to be constantly logged in because managers can’t physically see that they’re working,
- A lack of dedicated office space: This makes it difficult for workers to switch off and separate workdays and leisure time, often leading to burnout.
- Feeling like they can’t take a sick day: As workers are already home, it's easier to work than to rest. Some employers might even ask if they could do some remote work to meet important deadlines.
These are all issues a company and HR professionals need to address to ensure their employees’ well-being.
Consequences of Presenteeism
The biggest problem with presenteeism is that this overexertion isn’t leading to an increase in productivity or helping you build a better company—one that’s more prosperous and where your workers thrive. In fact, presenteeism leads to more challenges than benefits.
Both your employees and your business feel the cost of presenteeism. Some of the negative consequences are:
If a sick employee comes into the office with a cold or an infectious illness, they risk passing it on to their team members and causing them to miss work.
And when you have a bunch of employees out of the office, productivity is lost across the board. With teams operating at a reduced level, services suffer along with team morale.
When you’re sick, there’s nothing better than staying home and getting some good, old-fashioned rest. Staying home until you’re better means returning to the office in good physical health and ready to jump back into work.
But if your employees push themselves to continue to work—instead of staying home—it’ll take them longer to recover from their health issues.
Reduced Workplace Productivity
As mentioned, just because employees are present doesn’t mean they’re doing their best work. It’s unlikely an unwell employee will perform at higher levels. They may also be less productive for a longer stretch of time because of their longer recovery periods.
Greater Risk of Mistakes
Employees who are ill, tired, suffering from mental health conditions, or distracted by a personal emergency are likelier to make mistakes. As employee engagement is low, they could forget a meeting or make payment errors.
How to Reduce Presenteeism
Let’s look at how businesses can keep presenteeism to a minimum with 3 simple tips.
Tip 1: Encourage Employees to Take Time Off
Employees need to know their pay and reputation will remain intact when they take time off. They shouldn’t have to worry about their jobs or work they'll miss. Companies need to aim for an environment that rejects judgment and embraces wellness, where employees feel safe taking time off when needed.
Rather than creating a work environment that shuns absences, employees should receive adequate paid time off that leaves ample time for sick leave and vacation. Not only that, but they should be encouraged to use that time as they need it.
Tip 2: Provide a Flexible Work Schedule
Providing flexible working hours means workers can attend to their personal needs. They can take time off when they need to rest or receive healthcare, knowing there’s the option to catch up on hours when they have recovered.
It allows employees to adapt their schedule around their responsibilities and health. Besides a better work-life balance, flexible schedules mean that when they’re working, they are more likely to be focused and productive.
Tip 3: Change the Culture
Workplace culture is the place to start when a company wants to make a change. Stressors like a toxic environment not only cause staff burnout but lead to mental health challenges and other health risks. Here are some ways you can improve your culture and prevent presentism:
- Lead by example: Managers also need to take sickness absences when they’re not well. Staff will feel more comfortable taking time off when they see management doing the same.
- Make wellness a part of your culture: Introducing wellness programs, like fitness classes and mindfulness sessions, are a great way to put employee health at the center of your business. (And make sure that extends to making mental health a priority in the workplace, as a third of workers want more support from employers for their mental health and well-being.)
- Put into practice what you say: Many companies have mission statements and employee handbooks, but the reality of the workday doesn’t match up. For example, your company might allow for flex time, but everyone is still showing up at 8 a.m. and leaving at 5 p.m. It could be that the company culture doesn’t encourage this policy or that employees aren’t aware. Letting everyone know and promoting this option could make all the difference in avoiding presenteeism.
Be Proactive about Stopping Presenteeism
While presenteeism in the workplace might be common, it’s in everyone’s best interest to prevent it from happening. Ultimately, it can lead to burnout, long-term absenteeism, and big productivity losses.
So, make it a goal to encourage your employees to recharge when they need it–and you should do the same–until it becomes part of your regular company culture. That way, you can send the message that your team’s welfare is a top priority.
You’ll have happier employees who are naturally more productive, instead of just appearing to be well and putting in their best work.
Jenna Bunnell is the Senior Manager for Content Marketing at Dialpad.