What Is Presenteeism and Why Is It a Problem at Work?

min read
December 12, 2022

Have you ever sat next to someone at work who is unwell, either through illness or injury, and thought to yourself, “Wow...I really don’t think they should have come in today?” If so, you’ve experienced the workplace phenomenon that is presenteeism.

You may have even been that co-worker at one time or another. And while you perhaps view your actions as admirable, showing up to work when you’re sick, injured, or otherwise unable to do your job is actually a sign of a darker undercurrent plaguing today’s work environment. 

Let’s take a 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 show up to work when they’re unwell and not able to perform their job duties. This could be for a number of reasons, including:

Many employees consider absences a stain on their performance and credibility. They often fear for their future within a company. As a result, they push themselves to go to work when, in reality, they should stay at home.

Just how far does presenteeism go? According to a recent study from Zippia, 79% of respondents show up to work when they're experiencing neck or back pain, 34% show up to work while dealing with a heart attack, and 131% go to work when suffering from depression. 

Common Causes of Presenteeism

There are many different causes for presenteeism culture. Some of the most common include:

What is Digital Presenteeism?

Presenteeism isn’t just a problem when you’re working in an office. It can be just as big of a problem when your team is working remotely—an issue known as digital presenteeism. 

Digital presenteeism is when team members show up for remote work despite being unable to adequately perform their job duties—for example, because they’re too ill, injured, or dealing with an emergency.

Some of the reasons driving digital presenteeism in today’s culture include:

These are all issues a company and HR professionals need to address to ensure their employees’ well-being. 

Consequences of Presenteeism

The problem is that this overexertion isn’t leading to an increase in productivity. In fact, presenteeism leads to more challenges than benefits. The cost of presenteeism is felt by both your employees and your business. Some of the negative consequences are: 

It Can Cause Mass Absences

If a worker comes into the office with a cold or an infectious illness, they risk passing it on to their teammates—and their presenteeism can actually cause their co-workers to miss work.

And when you have a bunch of employees out of the office, there will be a loss of productivity across the board. With teams operating at a reduced level, services will suffer along with team morale.

Longer Recovery

When you’re sick, there’s nothing better than staying home and getting some good, old-fashioned rest. 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.

But, if employees stay home when they're sick—and stay home until they're feeling better—they'll come back to the office feeling rested and ready to jump back into work.

Reduced Productivity 

As we have discussed, just because employees are present doesn’t mean they’re doing their best work. It’s unlikely an unwell employee will perform to their fullest potential. There will also be a loss of productivity for a longer stretch of time as it may take an employee more time to recover, particularly if they’re dealing with health problems.  

Increased Risk of Mistakes

Employees who are ill, tired, suffering from mental health conditions, or distracted by a personal emergency will also be more likely to make mistakes. As their attention will be elsewhere, they could forget a meeting or commit payment errors.

How to Reduce Presenteeism

Let’s look at how businesses can keep presenteeism to a minimum with a few simple steps.

Encourage Employees to Take Time off

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.

When employees take time off, they need to know their pay and reputation will remain intact. They shouldn’t be worried about job insecurity or lost productivity. Companies need to aim for an environment that rejects judgment and embraces wellness—and where employees feel safe taking time off when they need it.

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 that they have the option to catch up on hours when they have recovered. 

It gives employees the flexibility to adapt their schedule around their responsibilities and health. It means that when they’re working, they are more likely to be focused, productive, and well enough to do so.

Change in Culture

Workplace culture is the place to start when a company wants to make a change. Having a toxic environment not only causes staff burnout but it leads to mental health challenges as well. Here are some ways you can improve your culture and prevent presentism:

Be Proactive about Stopping Presentism

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 well-being is a top priority. And in the end, their working lives will improve.

Jenna Bunnell is the Senior Manager for Content Marketing at Dialpad.

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