You may not have heard of the word presenteeism, but you probably have heard of the much more common “butt-in-seat time.” Managers often judge employees based on how many hours they work rather than by their end product and contribution.
This translates into dysfunctional thinking—if your boss can see you sitting in front of your computer screen you are seen as a good employee. This can lead to the issue of presenteeism.
The “Harvard Business Review” defines presenteeism as “the problem of workers’ being on the job but, because of illness or other medical conditions, not fully functioning.”
Many people come to work while ill or otherwise distracted by problems such as child care and chronic health conditions. While the employees are sitting at their desks, or working on the floor, their focus isn’t really on the work. As a result, you can experience a serious drop in employee performance.
Presenteeism stems from either internal or external pressure. A boss who sets unrealistic deadlines can cause employees to come in while sick (or work while on vacation, another form of presenteeism).
When you receive a job offer, in addition to information on salary and benefits, you also receive information on paid time off (PTO). Vacation, holidays, sick days, and sometimes personal days are included in PTO. You need to consider them as part of your compensation package—and take them.
However, some bosses strongly discourage employees from taking time off, even when they are sick. This illustrates the deep-seated idea that loyalty to the company and the job requires your presence at work.
This version of presenteeism results in a culture where time off isn’t acceptable. This means that employees come in when they are sick.
According to Jack Skeen, author of “The Circle Blueprint: Decoding the Conscious and Unconscious Factors that Determine Your Success”:
“The workplaces that make it the most difficult for workers to use vacation days or call in sick are the workplaces that will be the most likely to have poorly motivated staff. They come in resentful, overworked and completely unmotivated, whereas offices that encourage a strong work/life balance will have content and energetic workers.”
Additionally, an employee with an overdeveloped sense of duty can push herself to work when she really should take time off. Some bosses beg people to take time off for illness or vacation and yet the employee can’t bring herself to actually do so. If you’re worried that you’ll never catch up or that people will think you’re not that important, it can lead you to work when you shouldn’t.
But leaders and managers set the tone, and have a responsibility not just to their organisation but also to the wellbeing of their employees. As research shows, increasing presenteeism leads to increased prevalence of stress, and there is a wealth of evidence, such as the Towers Watson 2014 Global Benefits Attitudes survey, which clearly shows that workplace stress leads to less productive employees.
So why, then, do more than half of all organisations admit that they aren’t doing anything to combat this growing problem? It may well be that they believe that promoting long-term employee wellbeing might come at the expense of the short-term success of an organisation, but it can also be a lack of awareness of the growth of a corporate culture that accepts or even encourages presenteeism.
To perform at our best, people need to be well both physically and mentally. If businesses want employees who are engaged and motivated, then employees need to feel that their organisation, their managers and bosses are supporting them, and not pressuring them to work when they are not properly fit.
You would think that the more hours worked by employees the better. But this is not true. Working while you’re ill not only prevents you from working to the best of your ability, it can also infect your coworkers. A disease that makes you feel bad can be deadly to an immunocompromised coworker.
So, when presenteeism happens in your office, you can end up with multiple people sick over weeks instead of one person out of the office for two days.
It’s not just infectious diseases that are the problem. People who don’t take time off from work can suffer from stress and burnout. Stress can cause or exacerbate health problems, including deadly ones, such as heart attacks. Burnout makes it impossible for an employee to provide quality work.
How do we change this culture? It has to come from the top down. Employees won’t feel empowered to take time off when they’re sick if their manager’s behaviour runs counter to that. The second action businesses can take is to build a culture that emphasises healthy living.
Health should be promoted in the workplace, with people given the opportunity to learn more about their own health, to exercise and eat well within the workplace and beyond. At the CIPD, we host discounted zumba and yoga classes each week. TransferWise takes all its staff on annual company holidays, while the law firm Allen & Overy has GPs and dentists on site. Those are at the more expensive end of the scale, but even simple things like free fruit for staff, a perk offered by just 15% of employers, can help instil a healthier work culture.
Mental health and particularly the understanding of stress is equally important and is perhaps even more challenging. Much more needs to be done to educate managers in how to show understanding and ask the right questions, and how and where to find the right support. Leaders in this field, such as Google, have built good mental health into their culture by offering mindfulness classes to staff, while many large employers in the City, such as KPMG and Deloitte, have launched the City Mental Health Alliance, working with charities to end the stigma attached to mental health problems.
The message to business is clear; a workforce that is well, works well. We need our leaders – in the workplace and beyond – to take responsibility for their own health and wellbeing first, to set the right example.
Only then does this damaging culture of presenteeism have any chance of changing.
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