Picture this, you wake up on Tuesday morning with a splitting headache and heavy congestion. You’re pretty sure you don’t have COVID-19 and a moment passes as you consider whether you should take a sick day. Remembering the important meetings you have booked for the afternoon and the impending deadline for work due tomorrow, you quickly dismiss the idea and start getting ready for work. 

For the rest of the day, you face the judgemental looks of your colleagues at work and the strangers on the bus as you sneeze and sniffle. You also realise that you’re only working at half-capacity as no amount of painkillers dull the headache that is fogging over your ability to think clearly. This means you only get through half of the work you wanted to during the day, and wake up feeling even worse on Wednesday because of the late-night work-session you had to pull to get everything done. 

This is one example of what presenteeism looks like (and perhaps the most obvious). Presenteeism is a global phenomenon and is found to be increasing in organisations around the world, while levels of absenteeism simultaneously decrease (i.e. taking sick leave). When an employee wakes up feeling unwell (mentally or physically), they have two options: go to work anyway, or take the day off. Therefore, while many organisations continue to measure the health of their people by the amount of sick days they take, it becomes crucial to also understand and address presenteeism and what is causing it. 

By definition, presenteeism is “attending work whilst ill and therefore not performing at full ability” and recent estimates predict that it is up to four times more costly for businesses than absenteeism, as they pay their workers full-time wages for what is effectively part-time work. It also has negative implications for individuals as they fail to take the rest time needed to recover from their illness, consequently compounding their ill-health. 

Notably, presenteeism also occurs when workers who are stressed, depressed, anxious (or experiencing any other mental ill-health) come into work even when they cannot perform to their optimal level. This makes it particularly important to address presenteeism where possible, given that a quarter of working New Zealanders report problematic signs of psychological distress. 

So, how do we tackle it? Because presenteeism has only started receiving academic and organisational attention in recent years, our understanding of what causes it, its effects, and how to measure it is not fully formed. However, an important starting point involves recognising that presenteeism is a problem at all levels of an organisation, including the organisation itself, leaders, teams, and individuals. It is easy to blame the employee who chooses not to take a sick day but it’s also necessary to take the time to trace it back to its root cause.

  • Recent research shows that leader presenteeism significantly influences employee presenteeism and sick leave. Do you, or other people leaders, regularly show up to work with a cough or a sniffle, therefore role-modelling to team members that they should be doing the same? 
  • Are people regularly maxing out their allowance of sick leave days, leaving them with no choice but to come into work unwell?
  • Do teams support one another and have the resources needed to cover for one another if someone needs to take the day off? Are team members congratulated, rather than berated, for taking time off work to recover?
  • Can people take days off to look after their mental health if necessary? Does the workplace culture support people to do this without fear of judgement? 
  • Is the senior leadership team doing all that it can to embed wellbeing into the organisational DNA so that physical and mental health and wellbeing are proactively managed, such that fewer people experience mental and physical ill-health? 
  • Is a strengths-based approach to work implemented, so people are working in ways that build on their personal strengths and, therefore, increase their work engagement and effectiveness, even when managing unwellness?

Presenteeism in the workplace is a complex issue and one that is turning out new research regularly. We pride ourselves on staying on top of this research at Umbrella and plan to bring you a new article on presenteeism soon. In the meantime, we hope this article started your thinking around whether presenteeism is a problem in your workplace and what you might do to turn it around. If you liked this article, you can sign up for our monthly newsletter and read our other articles here.