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Understanding Presenteeism in the Workplace and What to Do About it

George Grombacher November 14, 2021

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Understanding Presenteeism in the Workplace and What to Do About it

We celebrate when our sports heroes play hurt and we dislike it when they sit out.   In the 2021 Summer Olympics, American gymnast Simone Biles opted out of competing because of her mental health and she was viciously criticized. 


We revere stories about people working multiple jobs, not sleeping and doing “whatever it takes” to accomplish their goals.  And I get it. I’m guilty of doing this myself.  


That being said, I also believe we’re moving toward embracing self-care, de-stigmatizing mental illness, and recognizing the value of rest and recovery in service of being and feeling healthy.  


So, we find ourselves at an inflection point.  On one side, the traditional thinking of “gutting it out” and on the other, taking care of ourselves and recognizing when we need time to rest and recover.  


When we do make the decision to show up for work despite not being or feeling healthy enough to be there, presenteeism happens.  


What is presenteeism?


Presenteeism occurs when an employee is not feeling well, but still shows up to work anyway.  Think of it like this, the person’s there, but they’re checked out.  There are a lot of reasons this happens.     


Physical causes


Allergies, back pain, obesity and illnesses like the flu are common causes.  Some physical ailments are chronic, meaning they become a part of our everyday lives.  When we’re experiencing back pain or something like it, even though we’ve become accustomed to managing through the pain and discomfort, we’re not operating at 100%.


Other physical ailments are acute, meaning they appear suddenly and last for a short amount of time.  The flu is an extremely common form of this, and suffering through the flu at work is a recipe for suboptimal performance.  



Mental and emotional causes  


Stress, depression, anxiety, family and financial matters are common causes.  There are many ways our mental and emotional health can suffer; events can be both chronic and acute.  When dealing with these challenges, we’re not operating at 100%.  


The impact it has


Cost to the individual 


The toll neglecting or ignoring ailments has on an individual can be severe.  It is difficult for us to recognize that taking time to recover and get back to 100% is a worthwhile investment, versus consistently operating at 70%.


Cost to the organization’s culture  


When a culture becomes one of showing up to work despite not feeling well, there are many negative ramifications.  Employees can feel like they have to come in even when feeling they shouldn’t, possibly increasing levels of stress and anxiety.    


Cost to productivity


Presenteeism has a clear and measurable cost to productivity.  It’s been estimated to reduce an employee’s productivity by a third. 


Monetary cost


According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, the total annual cost of presenteeism exceeds $150 billion.  That’s far greater than the cost of absenteeism.  


This is a very real and measured problem affecting the success of organizations and the lives of employees.   


The reasons it exists


That people get sick and suffer physically, mentally and emotionally requires no explanation.  How external factors play into presenteeism is worth our attention.  


Lack of education and or poor life choices  


Smoking cigarettes, getting into debt and living paycheck to paycheck are examples of self-inflicted unforced errors which can lead directly to presenteeism.  It’s hard to imagine that people don’t intellectually know that cigarettes and overspending are bad for their overall wellbeing, but it’s also likely people don’t fully understand the negative impact choices like this can have on their lives.  


Culture and benefits  


Cultures that promote results above everything which result in people being wary of taking time off can cause presenteeism.  Short-sighted benefit programs that limit and strictly enforce time off can also force unhealthy people back into the office.  


Solving the problem


Awareness, education and access


Are your employees aware of the problem of presenteeism?  Do they understand you’d rather have them at 100% versus struggling along at 70%?   


Are you providing the tools and resources they need to learn how to do what they need to do?  For example, resources for having a healthy diet and proper exercise routine, stress reduction techniques and tips for getting better sleep, and information about getting out of debt and creating a budget.  


Do they have easy access to the actual help they need?  Do they understand the importance of and have access to flu shots? Can they interact with an allergist to get seasonal allergies under control, is there a someone they can talk with to put a meal plan together?  


Committing to providing employees with the education, support and resources to become healthy and increase their levels of wellbeing is a wonderful starting point in the fight to end presenteeism.  


Providing resources where individuals can become aware and increase their knowledge level is essential in addressing any problem.  Giving individuals the autonomy to pursue a course of action or treatment in the way they see fit empowers them.  A supportive and positive community can help to catalyze the learning and foster change.  


How to combat it in your organization


These are enormous problems with big consequences that won’t be quickly or easily solved.  The first step is gaining an understanding of your organization and your employees.  Next, committing to a wellness program and getting everyone in your org enrolled in the effort.  From there, revisiting policies that could promote presenteeism and making any necessary changes.  


Diagnosing your organization


You can figure out what your people need by asking them.  You can also rely on any data you have from your health insurance provider for guidance on where to focus your efforts.  


Create and implement a wellness program


When you know the primary areas of concern, work with your employee benefits partners to develop a program to create the awareness, education and access your employees need.  


Start at the top


Create a wellness committee that has representation from every department of the company.  There should be a member from the C suite, human resources, etc.  This committee should meet once a month.  


Communicate communicate communicate 


Simply having programs and resources is not enough, you’ll need to remind your employees, message consistently and reward participation.  


Revisit culture and policies


Take a critical look at your existing culture and policies.  Is there anything that could promote or fostering presenteeism?  Could rethinking and changing your policies regarding sick leave and or personal days have a positive impact in your efforts to create greater wellbeing?  


Any effort like this will take time to implement and can be slow in producing results.  Keeping in mind the negative impact presenteeism has on your individual employees and the organization as a whole is important to carry you through this process.  


I hope the results come quickly, but I know your work will pay off in the long term.      


Additional resources


Here’s an episode of the LifeBlood podcast with Sean Sullivan on combating presenteeism. 


We’ve also got human resource consultants as LifeBlood Certified Partners who can help you to implement programs in your organization, you can request a conversation with one of them here.


The health and wellbeing of employees is a top priority for the best companies, good luck in your efforts! 

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