Employers Group Blog Connection

Present and Accounted for”…but not Here

Posted by Nicole Vierzba on Tue, Jul 12, 2011

“Presenteeism” is a baffling epidemic plaguing employers these days. Employers are not sure how to account for it.  Supervisors often ignore it, and employers are not always aware of the consequences. Thus, they are not fully able to remedy its disadvantages. 

So, what is presenteeism?  It is the absence of productivity while being physically present. In contrast to absenteeism, when employees are absent from work, presenteeism is when an employee is at work, but still “absent.”   

The Webster New World Medical Dictionary defines presenteeism as: “The problem of workers being on the job but, because of medical conditions, not fully functioning. The health problems that result in presenteeism include such chronic or episodic ailments as [those that are] seasonal. [Others] include: depression, back pain, arthritis, heart disease, high blood pressure, and gastrointestinal disorders.” The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines presenteeism as: “The absence of mind where one is physically present,” such as when an employee is fatigued.

The term was originally coined by a British Professor named Cary Cooper, a psychologist specializing in organizational management at Manchester University. Professor Cooper called presenteeism the opposite of absenteeism, and said that presenteeism follows from a worker’s fear and insecurity of losing their job. 

Spending more hours at work may seem harmless, but such conduct could lead to fatigue, depression, imbalance in personal life, animosity among coworkers, or overall lower productivity.  About 59 percent of workers believe that employees who stayed late in the office do not work any harder or are no more productive than employees who didn’t.  There are also numerous medical studies that show that labor beyond a normal day’s work steadily diminishes performance as time progresses.  Hence, “Working smarter rather than longer” is the new mantra of employers, who are discovering this to be an effective way to manage their workforce and reduce payroll costs, such as overtime.

Supervisors are typically mindful that employees must be allowed to exhale, brainstorm, chat, share problems with others, socialize, or bond. Conversely, supervisors struggle with striking a healthy balance between meeting employee needs and productivity goals. 

Some solutions may include:

• Get to know your employee – understand each employee’s weaknesses and abilities, and learn how to motivate your staff. Develop and coach employees who may be bored or have reached a plateau in their career.  Listen to your staff. Consistently solicit ideas and suggestions from them.  Stop bad habits or unacceptable conduct before it becomes abusive or disruptive. Tackling potential issue before they become a problem is less time-consuming and less costly.

• Manage the team – look for more effective ways to manage your team in response to presenteeism. Analyze this impact on any lack of productivity.  This means looking deep into existing problems.  Consider a more hands-on approach when morale is low, or instill accountability to promote and increase productivity. Employees who are constantly disruptive in the workplace may be bored.  Look closely at these occurrences, even analyzing the job design. You may find that all your employee requires is motivation. Never forget to “lead by example.”

• Create a culture of balance – when employees are distracted by non-work related issues, it may be inevitable that it will spill over into the workplace. Diminish this possibility by offering flexible schedules so that employees can tend to family matters. Consider including benefits such as concierge services, an Employee Assistance Program or other life management programs so that employees do not have to be concerned with the everyday things that they must get done.  (For example, Google has onsite oil changes, fitness classes, dry cleaning, bike repair, hairstylists and massage therapy.)

• Reduce health-related costs – take the time to assess the impact of health-related costs due to presenteeism. Consider taking proactive steps using preventative and life-management programs to help reduce employer health-related costs.  Sometimes, all it takes is a supervisor to show genuine support for a sick employee at work, and encourage them that it will be best to “go home” and return when they are better. 
Understanding presenteeism, and taking a proactive comprehensive approach to preventing the disadvantages it can cause, will enhance the employee/employer relationship, create a healthier workplace, lessen the overall impact of presenteeism and, as a bonus, it may prove to be a cost-saving endeavor.

By Kimberly Nwamanna,
Senior EG Consultant

Topics: motivating employees, employee retention, workplace, employee relationship, employee