People Management

Presenteeism: What It Is and How to Address It

Being fully engaged at work is key to peak performance and job satisfaction. Yet, some employees struggle with engagement due to health issues, personal challenges, or other concerns, leading to presenteeism. Here’s what small and growing businesses need to know about tackling presenteeism empathetically to boost employee well-being and organizational success.

What Is Presenteeism?

Presenteeism happens when employees show up to work even though they’re sick, injured, or dealing with personal issues. If it becomes a frequent issue, it can seriously impact overall productivity and delay the employee’s recovery, making it a concern for both the individual and the organization.

Unlike absenteeism, which refers to frequently missing work without valid reasons, presenteeism results from factors beyond an employee’s control. It is also important to note that presenteeism is distinct from other workplace issues, such as quiet quitting and coffee badging, which either involve disengagement from work or creating a superficial presence.

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Common Examples of Presenteeism

Often, employees are embarrassed to disclose their stressors to their employers, so they show up to work and silently deal with their issues instead of seeking support and resources.

Common examples of presenteeism include:

  • Working while experiencing flu-like symptoms, such as fever, cough, or fatigue
  • Ignoring doctor’s orders to rest and recover from an illness or injury
  • Remaining at work despite experiencing significant stress or emotional distress
  • Continuing to work during personal crises, such as family emergencies or relationship problems
  • Pushing through work despite experiencing burnout or mental health issues

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The Impacts of Presenteeism

The financial impact of presenteeism can be difficult to pinpoint since the relationship between cause and effect is only sometimes apparent. 

One study found that reduced productivity costs companies 2.3 times more than medical and pharmacy costs. Another revealed that American companies lose $150 billion annually to presenteeism. And a third found that companies lose about $3,055 per worker per year due to presenteeism. 

Beyond that, individual employees who attend work while ill often delay their recovery because they are working instead of resting. The lack of productivity can also hurt morale and company culture when fellow employees resent their underachieving colleagues. 

In some industries, presenteeism can have devastating health consequences. For instance, during the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare employees worked beyond the point of exhaustion.

That said, presenteeism is not necessarily inherently harmful, depending on the context. Balancing work responsibilities with physical and mental limitations is part of the workplace journey.

From the employees’ perspective, tending to work responsibilities can help people forget about mental or personal health struggles. Also, employers facing deadlines might prefer their non-contagious employees to work at partial capacity rather than miss target dates.

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Identifying Presenteeism

Employers know when an employee fails to show up for work, but spotting presenteeism takes observation and awareness of employees’ behavior and well-being. Managers and people resources professionals can be on the lookout for the following:

  • Physical symptoms: Employees may display visible signs of illness, such as coughing, sneezing, or fatigue, yet continue to work.
  • Reduced productivity: Despite being present, employees may need help to focus, make errors, or take longer than usual to complete tasks.
  • Unusual behavior: Employees may seem irritable, stressed, or emotionally overwhelmed, indicating personal issues affecting their work.
  • Excessive work hours: Working long hours, including evenings and weekends, without taking breaks causes burnout-related presenteeism. 

How to Reduce Presenteeism

Addressing presenteeism involves creating a supportive work environment that prioritizes employee well-being.

For instance, implementing flexible work arrangements, such as remote work options or flexible hours, will accommodate employees who need to attend to their health or personal matters without affecting productivity.

Additionally, comprehensive health and wellness programs focusing on preventive care, stress management, and work-life balance can significantly benefit employees. 

Managers should lead by example and emphasize the importance of taking sick leave when necessary. They should also discourage employees from coming to work when they are unwell.  

Educating employees about the consequences of presenteeism and the significance of self-care is equally important. Organizations should provide training on recognizing signs of burnout, stress management techniques, and healthy coping strategies to help employees maintain a healthy work-life balance.

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Presenteeism and the Law

If an employee seems under the weather or isn’t as productive, asking why is generally okay. But here’s the catch: you’ve got to be careful about how you ask. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) restricts employers from probing too deeply into an employee’s medical or mental health details in most cases. 

Instead, to deal with presenteeism, the focus should be on how the employee’s condition affects their work and discuss possible accommodations. This can include eliminating a hostile work environment that could worsen physical or mental health issues. In these instances, it is best to consult with a people resource professional before moving forward.

Dealing with Presenteeism with Empathy

The best solution for presenteeism is to build a healthy company culture characterized by empathy, open communication, and a healthy work-life balance. 

Remember, employees who tend to their work duties even while sick have strong work ethics. They want to be good team members and deserve empathy. 

You can show empathy by:

  • checking in with your employees and asking how you can better support them during weekly or bi-weekly one-on-ones
  • training managers to recognize signs of stress and provide support for mental health concerns
  • creating manageable workloads that prevent overburdening employees and discouraging them from taking time off

Wize Words

Remember, employees are human and face all kinds of stress inside and outside of work. Effectively addressing presenteeism requires a strategy that supports employees’ well-being, contributing to improved productivity.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can employers monitor presenteeism? 

Employers can monitor presenteeism by regularly reviewing employee productivity and the quality of their work, which often declines when employees are unwell but still working. Conducting employee surveys and routine check-ins can also provide insights into employees’ health and engagement levels. Training managers to recognize signs of presenteeism—such as fatigue or decreased performance—helps identify issues early and address them through supportive measures and appropriate accommodations.

What would make presenteeism less likely in the workplace?

Offering adequate sick leave and paid time off can reduce presenteeism. Employees with generous sick leave and PTO are more likely to take time off to recover from illness or manage personal issues without the pressure to work while unwell. Consequently, employees return to work refreshed and are more productive, benefiting both the individual’s health and the organization’s efficiency.

Author

  • Jocelyn Baker

    Jocelyn Baker is a freelance writer, an editor, and a former political reporter who specializes in business management. She has written thousands of articles and edited dozens of books about recruitment, leadership, and governance. She focuses on simplifying complex topics into implementable strategies.

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The article was reviewed by Deirdre Sullivan

Jocelyn Baker

Jocelyn Baker is a freelance writer, an editor, and a former political reporter who specializes in business management. She has written thousands of articles and edited dozens of books about recruitment, leadership, and governance. She focuses on simplifying complex topics into implementable strategies.

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