Presenteeism: when going to work just doesn’t work


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co-workers standing at water cooler“80% percent of success is showing up.” – Woody Allen

If you’ve ever shown up at work without being physically, mentally, or emotionally equipped to work, then you know what ‘presenteeism’ feels like. It’s normal to have ‘off days’, days when we’re ill or otherwise unable to focus on our work, but attempting to work on days like this may mean you are only able to give 20% of your ‘all’ to the job (with ‘just showing up’ accounting for the remaining 80%). You are certainly not achieving all that you otherwise could, and, depending on your working environment, might even be putting yourself and/or your colleagues at risk.

What is presenteeism?

Presenteeism simply means coming to work when you shouldn’t be there due to illness, pain, injury or personal crises. It can be associated with denial of illness, pressure not to miss work, being excessively goal-oriented, or feeling indispensable, and occurs in up to 70% of the workforce! Some suggest the effects of psychological disengagement on the job due to various personal health issues are more damaging to organizations than absenteeism.

The high cost of presenteeism

While we may admire the hero who perseveres and prevails despite pain, illness, injury, or emotional traumas, there’s a large downside to this phenomenon. Presenteeism impairs productivity, increases errors, causes accidents, incurs economic losses, and can lead to burnout and absenteeism. It’s bad for employee engagement, and it’s bad for business; the total cost of presenteeism has been estimated at 150 billion per year1.

Though that staggering figure is more than most of us can fathom, we can easily understand the personal cost of showing up impaired or of working with someone who is sick. Whether it’s an injured worker in a safety-sensitive position or a contagious low-income earner still working in the middle of an influenza epidemic because they can’t afford not to, presenteeism is counter-productive. Not taking the time we need to recover and be well will have negative ramifications on our personal life as well. Our colleagues do not appreciate when we ‘share the love’ with them by coming to work spreading germs.

 “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” – Benjamin Franklin

Reducing presenteeism – tips for managers

The best defense is early attention to employee well-being. From an organizational standpoint, it makes sense to promote healthy lifestyles, work/life balance, adequate nutrition, good sleep hygiene, regular physical exercise, and timely use of vacation breaks. A progressive non-punitive sick leave policy is also helpful and sends the right message to employees.

Managers can mitigate the risks of presenteeism by:

  • Relating to employees as people first – everyone has a unique story, and when leaders know their employees, they’ll be more aware when something isn’t right.
  • Openly promoting wellness programs – when managers talk regularly about employee benefits like EFAP and other support services available, it helps de-stigmatize the idea of seeking help.
  • Avoiding mixed messages about illness – employees take their cues from colleagues, the work culture in general, and, in particular, their manager. Evaluate what kind of subtle messages employees could be picking up about coming to work when they’re sick.

Presenteeism and you

If you’ve noticed it’s often a struggle to stay focused when you’re at work, or you feel pressured to come in when you’re sick, it may be time to get some help. This can include having an open discussion with your boss, talking to your family physician about medical leave, or getting support through your EFAP. Working through pain, illness, or injury isn’t good for you, your colleagues, or your workplace, and as such it is in everyone’s best interest to acknowledge that we are human. (Even machines need repairs!)

By Cedric Speyer, M.A., M.Ed., Dr. John Yaphe, MD.

Cedric Speyer, M.A., M.Ed., is a Clinical Supervisor for Shepell E-Counselling

Dr. John Yaphe MD, is a family physician, Shepell E-Counsellor, and Associate Professor of Community Health at the University of Minho, Portugal.

Additional resources:

1 Hemp P. Presenteeism: at work- but out of it. Harvard Business Review 2004; 82:49-58, 155.

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