Presenteeism and What to Do About It


We’ve all seen the co-worker who drags themselves to the office while they’re fighting a stinking cold, and sneezes and groans their way through the day, because ‘they’ve got something they have to get done’.

Heroic, right? They must be the sort of committed and dedicated employee we need — someone you’d want in you foxhole when the shooting starts.

Except not really, because work isn’t war (despite all the military idioms that some businesses employ), and in the long run that sort of behaviour doesn’t help.

Organizations know that absenteeism is a problem — that is, people not showing up even though they’re fine. Pulling a sickie might suggest a number of culture and leadership issues, but people showing up when they really shouldn’t is at least as worrying.

Presenteeism can be defined in a limited way as coming to work when you’re sick, but more generally it describes employees being physically present at work when they’re physically or mentally distracted to the point of being significantly unproductive.

Sometimes this might be as obvious as someone who is clearly ill coming in to save limited sick days, or because they have no paid sick days in the first place.

Another reason for sick people showing up might be a workplace culture that emphasizes attendance as part of a performance review — or just a culture where putting in crazy hours is the norm.

These sort of practices are often set up to counter absenteeism problems or because of the misguided sense that progress is best achieved by just throwing lots of hours at an issue.

But working excessively can end up creating more problems than it solves. Even though it’s easier to manage, presence is not performance, and the irony is that trying to avoid fake absences can in the long term cause more genuine absences.

That’s because the downsides of presenteeism go beyond just getting your coworkers sick. Reduced productivity and creativity, along with disengagement and lack of motivation create a potent negative cocktail.

Some workers might be resentful — they’d rather not be there but feel they have to be — while others might want to be there at all hours to impress the boss. Both groups can be vulnerable to burnout, with symptoms such as depression, sleeplessness, and chronic fatigue. The work, the worker and employee retention all suffer, even though the office might be full.

Fixes to presenteeism problems

The solutions to presenteeism can be both practical and cultural:

  • Tie reviews to performance not to presence at work
  • Create a culture of being interested in the person as a whole not just their capability as a productive employee
  • Set a good example as leadership by taking vacations and working reasonable hours
  • Create a minimum vacation time
  • Don’t count sick days but make sure employees are paid for them
  • Implementing a workplace wellness plan (look at this from the the UK Department of Work and Pensions for an example)

Especially in the US there’s a sense that working hard and being seen to work hard are crucial to success, but there’s a growing sense that how we judge what counts as working hard needs to be re-evaluated.

Getting lots of good stuff done while taking time off to ensure the progress is sustainable might not sound as exciting as burning the midnight oil, but sooner or later the oil will run out.

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