Attendance doesn't equal productivity.

The Problem With Presenteeism: Maybe You Really Should Stay Home

Health & Safety Health

Presenteeism, when employees come to work but aren’t fully engaged, is a bigger issue for many employers than absenteeism. Here’s how to overcome it.

Many employees see the act of suffering through work with a cold as, at least on some level, heroic. The reality of the impact on an organization, though, is anything but positive.

Presenteeism — the act of coming to work while ill, injured, anxious or otherwise unwell — has been found to actually cost businesses in the long run, even when employees have the best intentions. Unfortunately, some organizations function with a culture that heavily vilifies even justified absenteeism and, most likely, celebrates and rewards presenteeism.

Most organizations could benefit from an examination of their approach to both challenges, and, if they address them properly, may see tremendous benefits, including reduced losses from productivity.

Presenteeism Costs More Than You Know

According to IndustryWeek, presentee employees cost businesses around three months’ productivity per year, per employee.

That statistic, among others taken from a study conducted by Global Corporate Challenge (GCC), revealed that many organizations are making a mistake in focusing on absenteeism in their efforts to boost productivity. Perhaps most striking is the fact that the almost 2,000 employees surveyed reported that they were absent from work an average of four days per year, but at the same time confessed to 57.5 unproductive days in the same time period.

According to GCC Insight Data Scientist, Dr. Olivia Sackett, “[T]his study, and a growing body of independent research, indicates that businesses are focused on the wrong measure of productivity; absenteeism is not the major culprit. Businesses use absenteeism rates as an indicator of engagement and productivity because it’s easy to quantify. If your employee is at their desk or on the work site, you can tick a box.”

While the number may seem shocking on the surface, this attendance problem might not be as bad as it seems — it represents the fact that workers are functioning at 75 percent of their full productivity levels. Still though, it is costing businesses more than absenteeism by a factor of 10. For example, absent workers cost businesses $150 billion annually, but pointlessly present employees cost them a full $1,500 billion in the same time period.

The Causes Are Varied

One of the primary culprits is simply that organizations are taking the easy way out — the conversation around absenteeism is straightforward, and the metrics tracking it are simple. The opposite is generally true for presenteeism.

Much of the conversation around employee productivity centers around how many sick days are used as opposed to what’s being done when employees are actually in the office. Employees might be stressed, tired, overworked or distracted, all of which whittle away at their focus on their work. This has become especially true since the financial crisis of 2008, which has left many employees still insecure and uncertain about their employment.

An additional issue is the stigma around mental health. Employees may be reluctant to admit they might be depressed, anxious or dealing with some other form of mental illness — all of which can affect sleep, cause fatigue and impact memory and concentration.

Beyond that is the management of physical conditions including diabetes, hypertension, allergies and asthma, all of which, if not properly managed, may contribute to presenteeism and losses in productivity. These ailments can have double the impact by also worsening or being the root cause of mental and emotional health issues, which in turn, may lead to productivity problems.

But the Solutions Are Simple

While it may seem these problems are ingrained in the work culture, solutions to the problem aren’t complex. Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Start at the executive level: Many causes of presenteeism are rooted in corporate culture and the solutions should also start there.
  • Quantify the solution: Getting full executive buy-in can be difficult, but numbers help. IndustryWeek provides a great example of an organization that translated losses into terms that directly impacted EBITDA.
  • Address the whole person: When discussing employee health, consider not just physical health, but also emotional, mental, social and financial well-being.
  • Keep an open culture: Make sure that employees feel comfortable reporting health issues and that their jobs and incomes will not be threatened if they’re honest.
  • Examine employee benefit plans: Employees may be leaving serious mental and physical health issues untreated because they are not covered in their benefit packages.

GCC’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Batman stressed the fact that this attendance issue is actually easy to turn around if organizations are willing to focus on the well-being of their employees. GCC saw an improvement of 10 lost days regained for employees who participated in their comprehensive health program. Similar results may be possible for organizations who take the overall well-being of their employees seriously at a practical level.

Megan Williams
Megan Williams

Megan is a B2B healthcare writer with 10 years experience in hospital consulting, over a decade's work in online content creation, and an MBA.