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Presenteeism: Working While Unwell Risks and Solutions

Untreated mental health conditions have a devastating financial impact on Australian workplaces, costing a staggering $10.9 billion per year.

Presenteeism: Working While Unwell Risks and Solutions

Of this figure, presenteeism accounts for an alarming $6.1 billion in lost productivity. This highlights the hidden cost of employees struggling with their mental well-being at work.

What is presenteeism?

Presenteeism occurs when one is physically at work but has one’s mind elsewhere because of illness, stress, or other issues. Unlike absenteeism, which occurs when employees are absent, presenteeism is harder to track and can have an even more damaging impact.

Understanding presenteeism is crucial because of its significant toll on businesses and employee well-being. By examining the causes and consequences of presenteeism, we can create healthier and more supportive work environments.

What does presenteeism look like?

What presenteeism looks like

Presenteeism can manifest in many ways, some obvious and others more subtle. Here are common scenarios:

Common examples of presenteeism

Coming to work with contagious illnesses

Too often, workers feel pressured to come to work even when battling colds, flu, COVID-19, or other contagious illnesses. This practice endangers colleagues while also harming the ill employee’s productivity and well-being. Presenteeism persists because many work cultures still subtly (or not so subtly) discourage taking sick days. Letting employees work from home can stop the sickness from spreading and give them time to get better without coming to work.

Overworking/overtime despite feeling burned out

Employees often overwork, taking on extra duties, working excessive hours, and skipping breaks even when mentally and physically exhausted. Pushing through burnout can backfire, leading to plummeting productivity, poor concentration, increased mistakes, and health issues from unrelenting stress.

Vacation ‘Check-Ins’

Employees frequently feel pressure to monitor and respond to electronic communications during personal days off. Constant connection prevents proper rest and recovery. This hampers their ability to return recharged, focused, and productive.

The ‘Hidden’ nature of presenteeism

Presenteeism isn’t always as easy to identify as absenteeism. Someone might be physically present, but their focus, productivity, and quality of work can suffer significantly because of:

  • Mental health struggles like stress, anxiety, or depression can make it hard to focus and make decisions, even if you don’t seem unwell on the outside.
  • Employees may struggle with ongoing health issues or chronic pain. This can make it hard for them to do their best work, even if they come into the office.
  • Stress at home makes it harder for employees to focus at work.

Presenteeism’s hidden nature makes it tricky to address. Managers and team members might not even understand how much productivity is being lost.

What causes presenteeism?

What causes presenteeism

Presenteeism stems from a complex mix of workplace culture and individual factors. Let’s examine each in more detail:

Workplace culture

Workplace culture plays a significant role in fostering presenteeism. Employees who fear punishment for taking time off feel immense pressure to come to work even if they’re sick.

Workplaces that promote unrealistic expectations around constant availability and excessive workloads mainstream the idea that employees should sacrifice their well-being to be present.

Additionally, strict sick leave policies leave people with no choice. They must risk their health or lose needed income.

Individual factors

Presenteeism can also happen because of an employee’s personal beliefs. Some people wrongly think that being dedicated to their job means always being at work, even when sick or unproductive.

For those without enough paid leave or financial security, the fear of losing income can force them to work even when ill or stressed.

Additionally, job uncertainty can make employees worry that missing work will make them seem less dedicated or easily replaced. This fear can push them to come to work even when they are not feeling well.

It is important to identify that presenteeism is often the result of a combination of these cultural and individual factors. Understanding the root causes is the first step towards creating healthier, supportive, and productive work environments.

What are the negative impacts of presenteeism?

What are the negative impacts of presenteeism

Presenteeism has far-reaching consequences for both employees and the companies they work for. Let’s examine its detrimental effects in detail:

Bad effects on employee wellbeing

Presenteeism poses severe risks to employee well-being. Working while sick or injured prevents proper recovery and can exacerbate existing health problems, both physical and mental. Pushing through illness can lead to complications and lengthen recovery time, creating a negative cycle.

Persistent pressure to be present at work, regardless of health, contributes to chronic stress and heightens the risk of burnout. This state of exhaustion negatively impacts both mental and physical well-being.

Over time, a culture of presenteeism erodes morale. When employees feel undervalued and unsupported, they become disengaged, lose interest in their tasks, and experience lower job satisfaction.

Company-wide effects

Presenteeism has significant company-wide repercussions. While it may seem illogical, presenteeism significantly reduces overall productivity. When employees are sick, stressed, or distracted, they have trouble focusing, make more mistakes, and struggle to make good decisions.

Sick employees spread illness at work, harming everyone’s health and output. This leads to a ripple effect of absences and further productivity loss.

Finally, presenteeism breeds a toxic culture where people feel unsupported and pressured to give priority attendance over their health. This damages morale, increases disengagement, harms the company’s reputation, and can even lead to higher turnover rates.

Presenteeism is harmful in the long run, outweighing any short-term benefits it might seem to offer. Companies that focus on employee well-being and allow for rest have healthier, happier, and more productive workers.

How do we reduce presenteeism in the workplace?

How to reduce presenteeism in the workplace

Tackling presenteeism requires a complex approach and a commitment to change from companies and individuals. Here are key strategies to address this issue:

Cultivate a positive culture of well-being

Businesses must focus on employee well-being as a core value and actively foster a sense of belonging. This requires moving away from cultures that unknowingly reward presenteeism and creating an environment where employees feel genuinely supported in taking care of their physical and mental health.

Practical actions include offering flexible work arrangements, boosting mental health wellbeing, and proactive well-being programs. These initiatives increase employee experience and health, improve employee engagement, and reduce stress.

Lead by example

To truly combat presenteeism, leaders must inspire their teams. Managers should show good habits by taking time off when sick, giving reasonable workloads, and putting employee well-being first. When leaders walk the talk, it sends a positive message throughout the business This encourages others to focus on their health and creates a more supportive culture.

Revise leave policies

Implement flexible and generous paid sick leave policies. This is crucial for ensuring employees can take time to recover without fear of job loss or financial hardship.

Offer mental health days or personal days alongside sick leave. This identifies that well-being isn’t just about physical health. These actions demonstrate a commitment to employee well-being and a supportive work environment.

Address workload and expectations

Unrealistic workloads and constant pressure to always be “on” are significant drivers of presenteeism. Companies should regularly assess workload distribution and expectations of employees. Work collaboratively to create sustainable work plans, focus on tasks effectively, and address any bottlenecks or incompetence that might be contributing to overwhelm.

Promote open communication

Encourage open dialogue about presenteeism and actively work to demystify the need for breaks and recovery time—train managers to identify the signs of presenteeism and address them in a supportive, non-punitive way. Open communication builds a culture that prevents burnout and supports optimal performance.

Addressing presenteeism demands effective communication and continuous commitment and effort from everyone in the business. Workplaces that implement well-being strategies and a supportive culture see improved employee health, happiness, and productivity.

Wellbeing programs

Invest in employee well-being programs that go beyond physical health. These could include access to mental health resources, stress management workshops, team-building activities, and initiatives that promote work-life balance. Proactively investing in these programs signals a commitment to supporting employee well-being and helps prevent the issues fueling presenteeism.