Presenteeism: A Costly Productivity Threat

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine2.3k
July 21, 2024 at 7:19AM UTC

Sometimes, showing up to work at all can seem like half the battle. This is especially true if you’re feeling ill. Even just staring at your computer screen while not actually doing any real work may feel like an insurmountable challenge, never mind making it through the day. 

Actually, there’s a term for that. It’s called presenteeism. This occurs when employees show up to work while coping with an illness or other condition that impedes their productivity. So, why is presenteeism a problem, and what can employers and employees do about it?

What Is Presenteeism?

Presenteeism is a condition in which employees show up to their jobs but do not actually focus on their work. The term usually applies to employees who are hindered by medical conditions, mental health issues, or illnesses that make it difficult for them to focus on their tasks. While they are physically present — hence the term “presenteeism” — they are merely going through the motions, rather than producing. 

Presenteeism may result from employees feeling pressure to show up due to demands from their managers, inadequate sick leave and vacation time, or other factors.

What Presenteeism Is Not

Presenteeism does not refer to:

• Taking vacation or paid time off (PTO)

• Faking illnesses to avoid going to work

• Absence because of real illness 

• Going on parental leave

• Playing hooky from work

Working remotely

• Indulging in distractions at work (chatting with friends or checking Facebook)

Essentially, presenteeism does not occur when employees are not physically present at work or are ultimately capable of completing their work but are procrastinating. There must be real medical conditions that are impeding the employee’s productivity and ability to complete her tasks.

Common Causes of Presenteeism

Below are some common causes of presenteeism. Note that the illnesses and conditions listed are just examples; there are many other factors that might cause presenteeism.

Acute or Episodic Medical Conditions

Illnesses such as a cold, the flu, allergies, headaches and migraines, gastrointestinal problems, and others can impede an employee’s ability to physically complete her work. Sometimes, the pain or side effects from the condition can make it impossible to focus.

Chronic and Serious Health Conditions

Chronic conditions that cause pain, such as back pain, fatigue, asthma, and others, can also make it difficult to concentrate at work. Additionally, serious medical illnesses that require ongoing and expensive treatments, including cancer, heart disease, and others, may add the extra issue of preoccupation on top of the physical demands of focusing on work. An employee is also likely to be worried about her health and, in some cases, the cost of treatment in addition to dealing with the physical demands of completing her tasks.

Psychological Conditions

In addition to physical medical problems, psychological conditions and mental health concerns can also contribute to presenteeism. For example, someone suffering from depression may find it difficult to focus on work, and her productivity will likely suffer as a result. Anxiety, too, can interfere with an employee’s ability to complete her work. 

The (Costly) Effects of Presenteeism

The most obvious effect of presenteeism is an individual loss of productivity. If an employee is having trouble focusing on her work, she’s probably not getting very much done. However, presenteeism can take a toll on her manager, team, and even the entire company.

For example, team members will be expected to pick up the slack if an employee is not completing her tasks. This can lead to resentment, fatigue, and distress among other employees. Furthermore, an employee’s lack of productivity reflects on her manager. And the bottom line is she’s just not getting her work done.

The Harvard Business Review reported that one year-long survey of 29,000 adults found the cost of presenteeism to be greater than $150 billion per year in the United States, while two Journal of American Medical Association studies found that the productivity loss attributed to depression and pain was estimated to be three times greater than the productivity loss resulting from absence due to these conditions. Meanwhile, the American Productivity Audit conducted a study that determined that the in sum, adults working while ill cost employers in the U.S. more than $226 billion.

Presenteeism vs. Absenteeism

When an employee is absent due to illness or taking PTO, the often true expectation is that she will return having gotten a much-needed break. She will be productive when she comes back. But when an employee shows up for fear of missing too much work, she isn’t getting that break — she’s working through the illness but not being productive at all. That recharging is necessary. That’s why, ultimately, presenteeism is so costly to companies. Employees go to work every day out of fear of the consequences of not showing up, guilt, or other reasons — but they’re not actually doing the work.

How to Reduce Presenteeism

Clearly, presenteeism is a real (and costly) problem for both employees and employers. So, how can employers address it? Here are some steps managers and organizations can take to prevent presenteeism from affecting their employees and the workplace.

1. Gather data.

Using sources such as anonymous surveys, conversations with employees, and others, learn about presenteeism at your company. Look for ways to do this as anonymously as possible so employees don’t fear retribution for their honesty about their behaviors at work. Make it clear that you are doing this for research purposes in order to address the problem rather than punish workers.

2. Offer plenty of sick leave and PTO and encourage employees to use it. 

Many businesses offer sufficient time off, but when push comes to shove, some create the impression that they don’t really want employees to use it. Perhaps managers become irritated when an employee calls in sick at a busy time or asks for vacation to which she is entitled by company policy. It’s not enough to offer the days; employees should be encouraged to use them. 

3. Model good behavior.

Managers and leaders who are too ill to work should stay home as a signal to employees that they should do the same. Employees will learn from their example that it is important to rest and not force it when they’re not feeling capable of coming to work. 

4. Notice when employees seem too ill to be at work. 

If employees seem to be ill or otherwise preoccupied such that it is impeding their ability to perform their work, bring it up with them without reprimanding them. Let them know that they should take time off when they are unable to come to work and encourage them to go home for the rest of the day. 

5. Define presenteeism in your company policy and discourage it.

When outlining your sick leave policy in the employee handbook, include the term presenteeism and define it. Explain that employees should stay home when they are unable to perform their work and note that they will not be penalized for doing so. Make this policy visible through other means, such as posting it prominently and sending out email reminders about it on a regular basis. 

Preventing Your Own Presenteeism

Employees are also responsible for preventing presenteeism from taking a negative toll on their work. Here are some active steps you can take to prevent illnesses and other issues from interfering with your productivity.

• Take advantage of your PTO when you need it the most — and when it won’t hinder the efforts of your team.

• If you’re feeling sick, don’t come into work. Use your sick leave

• If you need more sick time than your employer provides, have a discussion with your manager about the reasons why. Explain that you don’t want to show up and not complete your work. Try to work out an understanding.

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