Why Presenteeism Isn’t Necessarily Detrimental (And How To Manage It)

Presenteeism is a workplace phenomenon where employees report to work despite feeling unwell. So, even though the employee is physically present, they are less productive. In the past, absenteeism was considered a significant drain on the bottom line. But the number of employees working through illnesses is thought to be much larger than those missing work because they are sick. As a result, the cost of presenteeism to organizations is almost 10 times higher than that of absenteeism. While there is no single accepted method of valuing presenteeism, Harvard Business Review estimates that it costs upwards of $150 billion per year in lost productivity.

Despite many employers implementing flexible work schedules and wellness programs, presenteeism persists. One reason is that employees fear losing their jobs or missing out on career advancement opportunities. Another reason employees display presenteeism is that they fear falling behind on their workload. These concerns are even more prevalent during widespread layoffs because layoffs place a heavy burden on the employees left behind. Even worse, some companies create an expectation that work is more important than well-being. These toxic work cultures pressure employees to perform at high levels with limited resources regardless of how they feel physically or mentally.

Yet, surprisingly, new research suggests that not all forms of presenteeism are undesirable. Let’s examine recent findings released by well-being consultancy Robertson Cooper, showing the real impact of presenteeism on workplace performance and what it means for the future.

Three types of presenteeism

Robertson Cooper’s new measurement approach identifies three distinct types of presenteeism. Two of these types may actually be desirable for the organization.

  • Pragmatic presence: this term refers to when employees want to be working to complete some projects despite not feeling their best. For example, you may be feeling better and decide to go to work to finish some tasks but then leave early.
  • Therapeutic presence: this category is when people get some benefit from returning to the office. Maybe you’ve been stuck at home sick for a week and are craving social connection. At that point (with your doctor's permission), you decide to go back to work.
  • True presenteeism: this last category is always considered dysfunctional. If you return to work and are too ill to complete any projects or there is no therapeutic benefit, it is considered “true” presenteeism.

How to manage presenteeism more effectively

In light of this new data, what can companies do to manage presenteeism more effectively? Here are five approaches to consider.

1.) Train managers to be aware

One way to reduce presenteeism is to coach managers on identifying the early warning signs of burnout and other health conditions so they can intervene as early as possible. Encourage supervisors to have honest conversations and empower their team to make good choices. By promoting open communication, employees will be more likely to confide in their managers rather than suffer in silence. At that point, leaders can address the situation head-on by providing their staff with what they need to thrive.

2.) Provide generous benefits

Employees are much more likely to report to work ill if they don’t have enough paid sick leave. Instead, offer workers a generous employee benefits package so they don’t need to worry about lost wages. Flexible working is another benefit that is especially helpful for parents with children or those caring for a loved one. Increasingly, individuals want to determine how, when, and where they work. By putting employees first and showing you trust them, you also encourage long-term loyalty.

3.) Help employees manage workload

To avoid employee burnout, it's up to supervisors to help teams manage their workload. This concept is essential following a layoff when the employees left behind are expected to pick up the slack. As a manager, be clear and transparent about what projects take priority and discourage multitasking. Also, keep an open-door policy. That way, if someone has a concern, they can feel comfortable coming to you directly for guidance.

4.) Lead by example

If your corporate policy states that work-life balance is a priority, but you send emails at 2 a.m. on a Sunday, you’re sending conflicting messages. Instead, lead by example. This approach shows the team your commitment to their well-being and helps them trust you as a leader. Over time, employees will feel valued and come to work with increased motivation.

5.) Encourage a results-only work environment

A results-only work culture focuses on output rather than where and when people work. Employees in these environments have more control over their workload because goals are created from the bottom up rather than the top down. Instead of focusing on the number of hours worked or being physically present, employers hold workers accountable for delivering measurable results. Consequently, it takes the pressure off employees who feel like they must be present when feeling physically or mentally unwell.

While new research suggests that not all forms of presenteeism are undesirable, it is still a problem that can lead to reduced productivity and increased absenteeism. By boosting awareness and prevention, companies can improve the overall well-being of their workforce. Only then will employees be in a position to perform at their best and be more satisfied with their jobs.

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