Presenteeism - Here, But Not Really Here

Distracted worker in warehouse

Woody Allen was once quoted as saying “80 percent of success in life can be attributed to simply showing up.” On the flip side, the actor James Caan is also quoted as saying “Showing up every day isn't enough. There are a lot of guys who show up every day who shouldn't have showed up at all.” Everyday life generally falls somewhere in between. 

As part of research for a related project, I came across references to “presenteeism.” Presenteeism can be defined as “the problem of employees who are not fully functioning in the workplace because of illness, injury, or other condition. Even though the employees are at work, they may not be able to fully perform their duties and are more likely to make mistakes on the job.”  

Presenteeism has a significant financial impact in reduced productivity caused by mistakes, injuries, and illnesses. “Presenteeism” is much harder to quantify than the more familiar “absenteeism”. In absenteeism you simply don’t show up for work and measuring it is easy based on your absence. In presenteeism, you are at work, but not fully engaged for whatever reason. 

Years ago, as a safety director for a large manufacturing company I became aware of those incidents where “lack of attention” was often identified as a root cause for the injury. The predominate work ethic and the prevailing corporate culture was simply “no matter what, you showed up.” Whether you were in good shape, poor shape, or under terrific personal stress you showed up for work. We didn’t realize presenteeism was a major obstacle to a safer and healthier workplace. In our efforts to improve safety the focus was on compliance, while perhaps losing track of the human aspects affecting behavior. It is clear that working longer hours only because you’re expected to do so doesn’t translate into increased productivity. Plus, it can lead to physical health problems that will only increase absenteeism. According to WebMD, a study in the Journal of Industrial Medicine found that, “working 61-70 hours a week increased the risk of coronary heart disease by 42%.”  

The impact of presenteeism appears to be significant.  According to Dr. Bridget Juniper, some “conservative estimates show the cost burden of impaired health equivalent to 15% of salary costs.” In 2018 Forbes stated the cost associated with presenteeism may be $150 to $255 billion a year (Goetzel et al). Sources vary, thus indicating the difficulty determining the actual loss; nevertheless, it is a serious problem for businesses and workplace safety.

According to a February 2020 article by Rise, “…physical health conditions result in more absenteeism. It’s less visible conditions like anxiety or depression, that drive up presenteeism.” Common causes for presenteeism are fatigue, financial problems, child and elder care, family issues, divorce, and people feeling obligated to spend extraordinary hours at work despite detrimental effects. Combining these issues with the fear of losing one’s job, staffing shortages, and a lack of available sick days adds up to high levels of presenteeism.  

Solutions to the presenteeism problem range from simple observation to enhancing benefit packages to improving communication across the organization. The solution starts with getting to know your people and observing them as they work. You will find out a great deal by making time to talk with them. People will open up when they feel you are genuinely concerned for their welfare. Communicate to team members that their best efforts are expected when at work, but if they are unable to perform, they should stay at home. Communicate what is acceptable in clear, concise language, and ensure these guidelines are applied equally to everyone.

If possible, make use of flex time, telecommunication systems, and other remote options. The recent “stay at home” experience has taught us that effective use of telecommunication technology can be a great tool. Be flexible where you can to accommodate working hours and shifts. Temporary changes in assignment may be appropriate. Sometimes the simplest thing can make the biggest difference.  

Review the corporate group health insurance plans, employee assistance programs, and other human resources department offerings. It is important to make mental health a priority, as it a major contributor to presenteeism. Make referrals where you can and involve human resources experts in the situation where necessary. 

Overall organizational culture can have a huge influence on presenteeism. Recognize good work by providing positive feedback and praise where appropriate. Kind words and acknowledgement of a person’s situation can go a long way. Investing in employees can create a culture that supports the balance of quality, productivity, and safety.  

Finally, looking inward is also essential. Do you view yourself as irreplaceable? If you feel that you can’t take time off because of job concerns perhaps you are suffering from a case of presenteeism. Remember to set the example, not be the example.