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Dealing with the problem of ‘presenteeism’

Last updated on
April 18, 2019

Most of us are familiar with the term ‘absenteeism’ and its related pitfalls, but in 2019 there’s a new problem: presenteeism. While it’s true that absenteeism can be seriously harmful for productivity, most companies have specific measures in place to deal with it.

Conversely, there are few ways to defend against presenteeism. It’s also much harder to detect, which has lead to decreased productivity and unhappy workers in offices all around the world. To help protect your company from the worst effects, here’s how to deal with the problem of ‘presenteeism’.

What is presenteeism?

The term ‘presenteeism’ was originally coined to describe the problem of people coming into the office despite being injured or unwell – physically or psychologically. Investopedia further clarified it as “a loss of workplace productivity resulting from employee health problems and/or personal issues”. But the meaning has since expanded.

Presenteeism today additionally refers to employees who are physically present but psychologically disengaged. These employees might turn up diligently each day, but in terms of productivity and motivation, they aren’t ‘present’ at all. The problem of presenteeism is becoming increasingly prevalent around the world and the statistics are startling:

  • A year-long survey of 29,000 professionals calculated the cost of presenteeism to be more than $150 billion a year in the US alone;
  • In the UK, a 2017 study by Deloitte found that presenteeism costs business £17-26 billion a year;
  • A recent survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development found that 72% of organisations reported issues with presenteeism over the past year; a further 29% had seen an increase in the issue.

Obviously, the problem of presenteeism isn’t something we can just sweep under the carpet. It’s a very real, tangible issue – but how has it become such a big problem?

What causes presenteeism?

Many people believe the common workplace culture of staying late and doing overtime is to blame for presenteeism. If people assume that’s what’s expected, they think they have to put in serious time and make sure they’re seen to succeed. A recent study found that the average US employee logged an extra 23 hours each month purely to be more ‘visible’ – but this phenomenon is by no means limited to America; in the UAE the average employee clocks in 24 extra hours a month!

But if presenteeism is linked to poor productivity, how can people working more hours lead to a less productive workforce? The problem lies in the fact that many of these workers aren’t really working at all; just sitting at their desk does not mean they will actually produce work… and if they are working, there’s certainly no guarantee it’s actually productive work.

We’ve written about Parkinson’s Law before – the theory that we expand our work to fill the time available for completion – and it certainly applies here. If your normal working day is meant to be 8 hours, but your workplace has a culture of staying at least 1 hour late each day, then (often without even knowing) employees may expand 7 hours of work into 8 or 9. Or they might not even attempt productive work during this overtime, but use it to reply to personal email instead, for example.

The thing to bear in mind is that it’s not that people actively want to sit in front of their computers and pretend to work – we all have places we’d rather be! The reason this happens is because people think they have to do this. The simple fact is that if we have a culture where visibility itself is valued over productivity or efficiency, then people will try to prove their worth just by being there. “Look at me!” their presence is saying, “Notice how hard-working and dedicated I am to the job!”

How to counter presenteeism

So what can companies do to prevent presenteeism before it starts stealing their time away and harming company culture? First things first, look at your leadership. Our CEO, Mathias, has actually spoken to Inc. at length about it, explaining that inadequate leadership is entirely responsible: “The problem is that many companies are directly encouraging presenteeism by handing out rewards and praising those who are 'seen' to be giving their all."

Rather than promoting the idea of quantity – the amount of time you spend in the office – you should focus on quality. Reward the results that are achieved, not the hours that are clocked. If a worker has had a productive, efficient day, they should be rewarded by leaving on time and enjoying their evening. But, in order for this to work, companies must remove the (often unspoken) consensus that workers are simply expected to stay late.

Instead of encouraging your team to work harder, encourage them to work smarter – and give them the means to actually take control of their own productive performance. Automatic time trackers are great for this; each employee can privately see where their time is really going and introduce effective change to manage it better. You simply can’t improve productivity – the measure of quality, meaningful work –  until you can pinpoint where you need to improve, so arm yourself with a few key tools and work smart, not hard.

Employee engagement requires ongoing effort and consideration. Learn how to nurture it for long-term success.

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