86% of over 1,000 respondents in a 2018 survey by the CIPD said they had observed presenteeism in their organisation over the last 12 months. What is it and does it matter?

What is it?

There is no universal definition. It includes, in my view:

  • Continuing to work while ill.
  • Working hours that are not productive.

It may be that the employee cannot risk the drop in earnings, or fears that their career, self esteem or job outcomes (to which they are committed), would be affected adversely if they took time off or worked fewer hours.

Where the culture of the organisation expects job priorities to take precedence over well-being, presenteeism is likely to be rife.

“Leavism”, employees working while on holiday (or even not taking holiday), is another growing trend.

Why does it matter?

In the first place, of course, no-one wants another employee at work with a heavy cold. Colds have a habit of spreading. Tip: if you have to shake hands with someone who has a heavy cold, use some hand gel afterwards!

Presenteeism lowers productivity. In most workplaces today you need employees to be fully alert. Similarly if a job requires physical fitness a health problem may limit what an employee can do.

Presenteeism damages health. There is a growing body of evidence that presenteeism, in the long run, leads to higher levels of absence due poor mental and physical health.

Presenteeism wastes time. When I was a senior manager my most productive hour was after 5 pm, when almost everyone had gone home. Then we had a new Managing Director and the management culture changed. No manager dared to leave until he had left, so we tended to “kick our heels” instead. My most productive hour disappeared.

Presenteeism can lead to “burn-out” and you then lose one of your most valuable employees because they become seriously ill.

What can be done?

If you are a workaholic it might not be good for you; but it’s your choice. Expecting the same behaviour from your staff is likely to be counter productive. It may be in your interests to “tame” your expectations.

Lighten up the workplace if you can. Breaks, humour (careful) and some social chat is not time wasted – think of it as oil that lubricates the machinery.

Introduce return-to-work interviews. These are important. Often they need to only be very brief. Placing a responsibility for an employee to be at work is important. But remember too that you, as the employer have responsibilities too. Seek out whether there is work-overload, ambiguity in their job role or overbearing supervision. If you accept your responsibilities, rather than just making the employee feel guilty for taking time off ill, then the message will go round. And indeed, you may be alerted to important aspects of your organisation’s culture that you can then address.

Some people love their work, which is great, and what you want. But care is needed so as not to take unfair advantage. Look out for those who are working when they shouldn’t. Keep an eye out for those who may be contributing more than then really should because of concerns over self esteem, job security or because they mis-interpret your expectations.

And lastly, try to avoid being a victim of presenteeism yourself, at a personal level.

Malcolm Martin FCIPD

Author Human Resource Practice

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