Is presenteeism really a productivity killer?

Presenteeism may not be all that bad for certain types of employees. Here's why.

Just as research has revealed that sitting all day is as harmful to health as smoking, new research reveals that presenteeism is the new absenteeism in offices around the world.

Presenteeism, defined as ‘showing up to work when one is ill’ suggests that employees are just at work to show they’re working instead of actually being productive or adding any value to the business.

Research marking ‘World Day for Safety and Health at Work’ from Fellowes reveals that Brits are amongst the worst affected in Europe. Additionally, UK employees regularly suffer from backache, neck ache and headaches as a direct result of how they are working, according to the research, suggesting that UK may have a disproportionately higher number of ‘sick offices’.

In addition, as many as one in five UK workers highlighted weight problems, and 1 in 10 cited an increase in blood pressure, as a result of poor wellbeing at work.

The research also found that more than half of UK workers are currently going to work when their performance is negatively affected by work-related health issues. One in three believe they are facing health issues because of their work environment, to the point that they have considered moving jobs.

The domino effect

“When a worker is present but not able to perform their function properly, it compromises their performance. With most employees continuing to work at sub-par levels rather than taking days off to recover, this also prolongs the effect of illness,” says Adrian Lewis, director at Activ Absence.

“Subsequently, businesses are experiencing a detrimental knock-on impact on the quality and volume of work produced, with a further impact on overall business performance.  Those who come in with infectious illnesses also spread bugs and viruses to their colleagues, creating a chain reaction.”

Employees guilty of presenteeism may drag down the motivation of other more productive employees, which is more damaging than if such an employee weren’t in at all. The organisations that still place more weightage on long hours at the desk over output as a marker for productivity are the ones most at risk of creating employees that practice this mentally ‘checked-out’ form of presenteeism.

Related: Breaking the culture of presenteeism

Suspicious bosses

Separate research for AXA PPP healthcare highlighted another side to this problem; the managers who take the phrase ‘keep calm and carry on’ a bit too seriously. According to this research, only 24 per cent of UK managers believe that having a cold is sufficiently serious to warrant taking time off work, and less than half, just 41 per cent, wager that flu is a serious enough reason for sick leave. 

At the same time, 58 per cent of managers believe productivity suffers when unwell employees show up to work and try to soldier on. Why the discrepancy? And more importantly, what’s the solution?

Dr Yousef Habbab, medical director for Health Services at AXA PPP healthcare believes that losing employees to coughs and colds is a perennial problem, and that could be why so many managers are sceptical. “While they are generally self-limiting and short-term, the severity of seasonal viruses can vary and at their worst they can knock us for six. And, when this happens, we shouldn’t be afraid to take time to recover or, if necessary, see a doctor – especially if it’s a more serious condition such as flu which triggers breathing difficulties.”

The AXA PPP study also revealed that bosses now think digital healthcare could be the answer, by helping to reduce employees’ time out of the office, reducing presenteeism and boosting productivity.

Countering the obstacles to employee wellbeing

The Fellowes research echoed these findings. While senior managers in the UK identified improving morale, productivity and creating a healthier workplace as their top priorities, only 39 per cent of employees are aware that their employers currently offer health and wellbeing initiatives to address these areas. What’s more, almost half of the UK workforce don’t think their employers are doing enough to look after their general wellbeing.

“In recent years, we’ve seen an explosion in initiatives to cut the cost of absence. Unfortunately, few employers have invested in the absence management tools that enable them to uncover the cause of absence in their organisations – so the initiatives are not based on data, and there is virtually no targeted approach to wellbeing,” Lewis adds.

“Instead, the approach has been mainly disciplinary, assuming everyone off sick is an absentee or a malingerer. This is short-sighted. We shouldn’t be scaring genuinely sick people back into work – I’ve even heard of someone with pneumonia too scared to take time off! Absence management starts by getting data and taking targeted action – it amazes me when employers offer a yoga class and assume they have wellbeing covered!”

Related: Wellbeing and productivity – Can employees design their jobs better than the boss?

Lewis believes there aren’t any short cuts. Return to work interviews should be exploratory, not disciplinary, and identifying patterns and trends in your team will tell you what to do next.  Once businesses uncover why people are off sick, they have the data to take preventative action with wellbeing initiatives, and can target the solution to the problem, he says.

“Musculoskeletal problems?  Invest in ergonomic equipment – and check that your health and safety processes are working.  Mental health issues?  Speak to occupational health and train your line managers.  Call in experts if you need to.  The systems that identify patterns and trends will tackle absenteeism anyway, and usually improve engagement, too.  Targeted preventative solutions will also improve productivity – presenteeism on the other hand just costs employers more in the long run.”

Is presenteeism really that damaging?

Meanwhile, research from the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) suggests that presenteeism may not be all that bad. The IES report, ‘Presenteeism: A Review of Current Thinking’ challenges the idea that workers have to be 100 per cent fit before going back to work and argues that the workplace can have a beneficial effect on rehabilitation and recovery, even for workers with serious health conditions.

The report by IES Principal Associate Dr Valerie Garrow, looks at research from across the world on the causes and impact of presenteeism. In many cases, presenteeism can be damaging to health and also represents a hidden cause of reduced productivity – becoming an even bigger burden than sickness absence from work in some sectors. And while Dr Garrow acknowledges that this attitude to work can be negative, risking cross-infection and increasing the chances of making some health conditions worse, she believes that employers should look at the positive benefits of some presenteeism at work.

“Of course we don’t want people to endanger their health further by coming to work unnecessarily,” says Dr Garrow. “However, our report shows very clearly that if people with ill-health are on the journey back to work after an illness or injury, having access to a phased or graduated return to work where they perform reduced duties or work fewer hours can benefit both them and their employer.”

The report highlights that people with some forms of mental illness, those who have financial worries, and those fearful of losing their jobs are among the workers most likely to go to work when they are ill.

See also: How a 5-hour workday could be your productivity secret weapon

According to Professor Stephen Bevan, head of HR research development at IES, the main message of the report is for employers to create environments where people with health problems feel confident to disclose them to their bosses so that they can get the help they need, whether that’s to gradually return to work or work from home. He believes that it’s also about building employee confidence and speeding up recovery. “For some conditions, a good-quality job and a supportive boss can have genuinely therapeutic benefits and, for many people, being away from work for weeks can undermine their physical and psychological health,” he says.
Although presenteeism as workers recover and return to work can represent a short-term reduction in productivity, it can also increase the chances of making a speedy and sustained return to full capacity. The report also acknowledges that managing presenteeism positively can be a challenge to line managers and supervisors.

“The difficulty for line managers is that it can often require talking about sensitive subjects, which calls for trust that the line manager has the employee’s best interests at heart. The situation often demands some knowledge of the illness itself; what to expect and how to respond,” Dr Garrow explains. “Line managers need to balance the interests of the individual with those of the team. All this means that line manager training and their collaboration with Occupational Health and HR is critical. They need to feel confident that they are acting appropriately, and giving correct guidance to their staff.”

Tackling presenteeism in five steps

Activ Absence’s Adrian Lewis outlines five ways to weed out presenteeism.

  • Develop a policy on both absenteeism and presenteeism and make sure everyone in the organisation is aware of it
  • Boost morale in the workplace. Perhaps look at more team building activities or something simple such as a few drinks in the office every Friday to say thank you
  • Encourage people to look out for their colleagues and spot signs if someone is ill or struggling at work. Also provide proper training for managers to recognise the symptoms of stress, ill health or mental health problems
  • Ensure managers are aware of what causes presenteeism. Large workloads or tight deadlines can stop people taking time off in order to get things done. Line managers should be able to manage their teams workloads appropriately
  • Make sure managers have the soft skills to communicate effectively with their team and promote open communication. They should also encourage positive working and wellbeing practices including strategies for better work/life balance

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for from 2016 to 2018.

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