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What is presenteeism and how can we reduce it?

PUBLISHED: 15 August 2019 | LAST UPDATED: 14 September 2022

What’s the harm of presenteeism? 

Up until recently businesses worried about absenteeism – employees calling in sick when they’re not, just to get out of work for the day. Following a push from employers to reduce the level of absenteeism, the pendulum has swung the other way and we’re now more likely than ever to attend work when we’re really not up to the job – this is known as presenteeism.

A study in the USA found employees take an average of four days off sick each year. It was also found that these same employees were still in work but underperforming due to their health for as many as 57.5 days a year i. There are many reasons why people go into work when they’re not feeling 100%, but what harm is the culture of presenteeism actually causing? 

Why do many employees suffer from the troubling condition of presenteeism?

Do you turn up to work even when you’re feeling unwell? We took a look at some of the reasons so many people do…

The nature of your job 
The nature of your job may mean taking a sick day creates extra work for you and the people around you; whether it’s finding someone to step in at short notice, the build up of e-mails you’ll go back to, the paperwork that’ll need filling out, or the extra planning you’ll need to do. And it’s all a lot harder when you’re not well. On top of that, some companies require back-to-work interviews for just one or two days off. All this can make it seem like it’s less hassle if you go just go in. 

If you don’t work, you don’t get paid 
Although many countries have a minimum amount of employee sick days, many don’t. And if you’re a freelancer, self-employed or on a casual contract, you also risk missing out on pay if you’re unable to work. You might be able to take the hit for an occasional day, but what if you need an extended period of sick leave? It’s always a good idea to have a back-up plan – just in case.

You’re not physically sick 
If you’re suffering with a mental health issue, it can feel even harder to take time off. Common mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and workplace stress are increasingly to blame for people going to work when they’re just not up to it. 

Much of that is down to stigma and a desire to hide mental health difficulties from colleagues and managers. Mental health issues are invisible and can be harder for others to pick up on. This can contribute to the idea that, because you’re physically fit, you must be feeling well, too. You might feel guilty for not being in work, while depression and anxiety themselves make it worse and can convince you that you don’t deserve time off.

Why break the culture of presenteeism? 

As with all culture problems, to see a big change, we must all make small changes ourselves. It takes some work, but employers and staff can take steps to break the culture of presenteeism and encourage a positive culture in the workplace instead.  Here are some reasons why presenteeism could be causing more harm than good:

You’ll be ill for longer 
Most importantly, your health comes first. If you’re unwell, you need to try to focus on getting better. Try and get some rest, stay hydrated and speak to a doctor if you’re unsure about what to do.  

You’re not protecting your colleagues and customers 
If you’re ill but you’re determined to struggle through the day, it’s worth thinking about the bigger picture. If you work with a lot of people, whether they’re customers or colleagues, you could be putting them at risk of getting ill too. Sometimes, to give yourself time to get better and to prevent making other people ill, you’re best off staying home. 

Maximum effort, minimum gain 
Whether you’ve got a runny nose and you’re coughing and sneezing, running to the bathroom every few minutes, or your mind is racing, you’re probably trying your hardest to put on a brave face. And while being at work might mean you can get more done than if you’d stayed at home, you’ll feel awful and probably won’t be that productive. 

If you take a day or two off to recover, you’ll be more likely to feel better faster, and be able to return to work ready to take on the world. But if you keep going to work when you’re not feeling well, it’s likely to last much longer and your body won’t get the rest it’s telling you it needs. 

Damaging morale 
If you and your colleagues feel expected to come in when you’re unwell, resentment towards your employer can rise and job satisfaction can drop. When this happens, productivity starts decreasing and people work longer and longer hours trying to catch up. As a result, they become run-down and more prone to both physical and mental ill-health. This damages productivity and a vicious cycle is created.

Presenteeism around the world 

If you’re moving to work in a new country, try not to use working 24/7 as a distraction from homesickness. Try to be aware of the local work culture and know your limits. A recent survey by Ipsos Global and Reuters found Australia, South Africa and Japan are the most ‘workaholic’ countries, and that less than half of employees in Australia and South Africa use their allocated sick daysii.

Karōshi – 過労死 
In Japan, ‘Karōshi’ (過労死) or ‘overwork death’ relates to the phenomenon of people dying suddenly from diseases such as stroke or heart attack while still in their physical prime, or even from suicide, as a result of overworking and work related stress. 

Since the 1980s, the Japanese government has tried to change the culture of working all hours and instil a more balanced lifestyle. However, a number of socio-economic and cultural factors are working against the government’s efforts. Despite working the longest hours out of all the countries in the G7 group, Japan is also the least productive.iii 

What can employers do differently to help fix presenteeism? 

Despite efforts, we still feel the pressure to come to work when we’re not well. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s Health and Well-Being at Work Survey Report found that 83% of respondents saw employees in their organisation coming to work while unwell.iv  

Employers need to understand that putting pressure on employees to come into work when they’re not well can have negative consequences on productivity, overall costs, employee health and morale and the reputation of the organisation. 

Employer tips for reducing presenteeism 

1 - Improve your sick-day procedure 
Let staff know that their health comes first. Make sure your sick-day procedure isn’t acting as a deterrent and encouraging people to come in when they need time off. 

2 – Lead by example 
Managers should lead by example and be seen to be taking time off if they’re unwell. This will demonstrate to employees that there is no expectation for them to come to work while sick. 

3 – Allocate set duvet days 
Alongside annual leave and sick day allowance allocate a certain number of days that employees can take when they’re just not feeling up to it. If an employee has been putting in extra hours or seems to be overwhelmed, encourage them to use a duvet day to check in with themselves. 

The information in this article is correct at the time of publishing.