What Is Presenteeism?

Woman sitting at desk in front of laptop holding her head with eyes closed.

Attendance at work is important. Each day there is work that must be done and functions that must be staffed. Most days people come to work ready to do their jobs. But sometimes people come to work not fully able to do tasks, perhaps because they are ill or perhaps because they are exhausted. Such people are said to be engaging in presenteeism but exactly what is presenteeism?

Employee Withdrawal

For most jobs employees are expected to be at work when scheduled. They typically have a starting and ending time, and they are given scheduled breaks for meals and rests. Withdrawal is when employees work less than they are expected. It has many forms.

  • Absenteeism: Missing a scheduled shift.
  • Cyberloafing: Engaging in leisure activities on a phone or computer during work time.
  • Lateness: Starting a shift late.
  • Long breaks: Taking longer breaks than allowed.

Some withdrawal is a reaction to having a dissatisfying job. People who are unhappy at work sometimes do what they can to avoid it. Other times withdrawal is due to health issues—an employee experiencing an illness or injury that makes it difficult to perform the job. Most employers provide a sick leave benefit that allows a certain number of excusable absences when an employee is unable to work. But what happens when an employee chooses to come to work when ill?

What Is Presenteeism?

Presenteeism is when an employee chooses to come to work when ill or otherwise not fully able to work. This can happen because employees do not have sick leave, want to save sick leave, feel under pressure to come to work, or are overly conscientious. They might believe that being present is more important than being effective at work and that even working at diminished capacity is better than not working at all. Unfortunately, coming to work when ill is not a good idea for several reasons.

  • Coming to work with a contagious disease risks spreading it to other employees and members of the public. If the COVID-19 pandemic taught us anything, it is that we should be cautious about exposing others when we are ill.
  • Being ill increases the chances of having an accident due to lack of attention or slowness to react to danger.
  • When we do not feel well, we are more likely to make a mistake at work that could have serious consequences. For example, a healthcare provider might be distracted by illness symptoms and make a medical error that hurts a patient.
  • Obvious illness symptoms such as cough or running nose can undermine customer service. Who wants to be waited on by someone who is obviously ill?
  • Working rather than resting can slow recovery, thus extending the time that an employee is not working at 100% capacity.

Organizational Policies Are Key

Organizations should enforce anti-presenteeism policies that tell employees they are not come to work when ill. This is standard in some industries, such as healthcare, but should be adopted wherever there is potential to spread disease or make mistakes that could have serious consequences.

Policies are important, but they do not work in a vacuum. As important as policies are, practices that support staying home when ill are key. Supervisors should not make critical comments about attendance to an employee who stays home with an illness. Furthermore, organizations should not put undue attendance pressure on employees that might be interpreted as demanding they come to work at all costs. Managing attendance is a balancing act between encouraging attendance while discouraging presenteeism. Often the best way when possible is to empower employees by holding them accountable for results while allowing them autonomy over when, where, and how they do their jobs. Such flexibility allows employees to avoid presenteeism by shifting working hours. Stay home today to recover and make up the work in the future.

In many organizations, discouraging presenteeism can be a culture shift. The sad truth is that organizations where people are encouraged to ignore their health are not doing a good job of managing their human resources. People cannot be expected to work at peak capacity all the time, and sometimes allowing time to rest and recover results in better overall performance. A day of rest today can be an investment in better performance the rest of the week. It also avoids the many potential drawbacks of presenteeism.

Photo by Marcus Aurelius from Pexels

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