Absenteeism from work is never productive. But it does not necessarily follow that being present goes hand in hand with high productivity.
There is a growing problem with presenteeism in the workplace. But what is presenteeism and why is it an issue of concern?
What is presenteeism and how does it affect productivity?
In the past, presenteeism was a term used to describe a situation when people stayed at work, even when they were sick. It arose when people were not paid for sickness absence and could not afford to lose a day’s pay. So they went to work and became guilty of presenteeism. They were present at work, but not productive or able to contribute, due to their ill-health.
These days, the term “presenteeism” is used to describe any situation where people are present at work, but are not being productive. Have you ever known anyone who has finished a specific piece of work, but stays at their desk for a further half an hour, so they can be seen to be there? Or what about the person who spends most of their day checking their social media or emails and does not actually produce any work?
Why do people need to be seen to be present?
You may say that you do not ask – or expect – people to work long hours or come into work when they are sick. If they choose to do that, then that is their own decision.
Indeed, there may be little pressure from managers for people to exhibit presenteeism. Many people have a strong sense of loyalty to their co-workers. So they do not want to cause others to have more work to do because they are sick. They “don’t feel too bad” so think they can do a day’s work. Others may feel a loyalty to the organisation they work for. Their presenteeism is a misguided attempt to “be professional” or to support the organisation or colleagues.
In some industries or areas where there is little other employment opportunity, people are frightened that they may lose their job if they take too much time off sick. Or they have personal money worries. Maybe they fear downsizing or job losses. In a smaller team, people might be afraid that the work will pile up while they are off sick. So they come in before they have recovered. Or they work at weekends, to avoid the pressure of a heavy workload. This is common where people feel they have high workloads or tight deadlines and believe they have little support.
Then, of course, there are people who are addicted to work – “workaholics”.
Why is presenteeism so bad for productivity?
Presenteeism can raise a range of concerns about the work environment.
Firstly, the person who is guilty of presenteeism is clearly not very productive. Just because someone is in the workplace, they may not add a valued contribution to the organisation. This might even be more costly for the employer than their absence would be. The quality of their performance will reduce. This could lead to poor judgements which cost time and money to fix.
My second concern is about the company’s culture and whether that brings out the best in people. Presenteeism is a big pointer that someone is feeling insecure in their job. These are people who need to be seen to be working to prove that they are valuable. The message that a manager can take from this is that people need to understand their value to the organisation and why their role is important.
Another issue is poor health – for both the individual employee and their colleagues. If someone continues to work when ill or exhausted, then they are likely to fall victim to other sickness. They will probably pass their bugs on to colleagues. This can cause a rash of absence as others have to take time out to recover from a stomach upset or cold which has been passed on to them. It will take the individual longer to recover from sickness as they have not taken enough rest. This will make them unpopular with their colleagues who become sick or who have to pick up the workload. This has the potential to damage general staff morale.
What can an employer do to prevent presenteeism?
Have you thought about training your managers to recognise presenteeism and to discourage it? For example, technology is widely seen as positive in the workplace, but many people find it difficult to “switch off” outside working hours. I have known many people who deal with emails late into the night, or even take laptops on holiday so they can keep up with work. This negates the benefit of having an overnight break or a holiday.
Many of us work in high-pressure cultures or deal with heavy workloads. This can push unwell employees into the office. It can also lead to people using annual leave and weekends to catch up with a backlog of tasks. This requires some serious management and job design. You may well be concerned about the additional cost of an extra salary if you take on more staff. How much more does it cost for your current employees to manage the tide by working when they are unfit, only to drown when they are engulfed? You may want to make it a priority to give more manageable workloads.
Leading by example
Simple steps to take include sending unwell employees home. You could also encourage – or even enforce – breaks and reasonable working hours. Make it clear that your Company expects sick employees to stay home and recover. How about sending a “hometime” reminder from the CEO to come up on every computer screen at the end of the working day? The workaholics among your staff may resist this, of course. But they may thank you in the long run. You will definitely see the benefit yourself.
Deadlines are a factor of the modern workplace and there is probably nothing you can do about that. There may be occasions when you need people to work late or out of hours. Keep these to a minimum, rather than an expected pattern. You will find that people are willing to help you to meet an important deadline.
A really basic step for business owners, CEOs and managers to take is to be the role model of the behaviour you require. This is simple, but surprisingly rare. Your staff will look to you for a lead and they will follow your pattern. If you work long hours, don’t take breaks and work when you are sick or on holiday, then you cannot expect them to behave any differently. You are the key to changing the culture. You are not made of steel, either. All of the disadvantages that presenteeism brings for your workplace also apply to you.