HR Management & Compliance, Learning & Development

Identifying and Addressing Presenteeism in the Workplace

What is Presenteeism? 

There has been a lot of talk about the Great Resignation, but there are other issues affecting workers in the workforce, such as presenteeism, quiet quitting, and productivity theater, that should be addressed and relate to employee performance, engagement, and effort.

Presenteeism is when employees work but not at their fullest capacity due to various factors, such as being sick. This is different from absenteeism, which is when an employee is simply not at work. 

How is Presenteeism Different from Quiet-Quitting or Productivity Theater?

Quiet quitting is the new term for a concept HR has been using for some time called “discretionary effort.” Discretionary effort describes the effort an employee chooses to put in, whether or not it’s above and beyond the minimum expectations. I’ve also heard this called “coasting.” 

Productivity theater refers to the work an employee chooses to do to “look productive.”  Workaholics can also be placed in this category.   

What Are the Main Causes of Presenteeism? How Can Managers Engage Employees When They Notice Signs of Presenteeism?

There are many causes of presenteeism that include factors related to the individuals, their environment, and the organization they work for. Individual factors include employee disengagement due to stress or burnout, their struggle with a short-term or long-term physical condition, challenges with mental health, or family caregiving responsibilities. Presenteeism is not uncommon in the workplace. According to research published by BMC Public Health, studies have shown that more than 60% of employees have attended work while sick.

Managers can have a large impact on presenteeism. They not only need to know how to identify when presenteeism is occurring but also need to know what steps to take to help reduce it in the workplace.

An engaged workforce is one of the best combatants to presenteeism, and a manager has a significant impact on an employee’s engagement level. Employees who feel they have higher well-being feel 88% engaged at work versus those who feel they have lower well-being (50%).

Managers can engage employees by building trust, asking questions, and creating a safe space to share observations. The relationship between a manager and an employee is therefore pivotal in understanding changes in performance.

How Do You Identify Presenteeism in Workers? What Are Some of the Signs?

Managers’ approaches and influence can have a lot of impact on their team members’ presence and presenteeism at work. Managers not only need to identify when an employee may be showing signs of presenteeism but also need to know how to reduce presenteeism in the workplace.

Some signs of presenteeism include employees’ working when they are not feeling well, playing down their illness or injury, never bringing forth extra effort or going beyond the minimum expectation, having few ideas to move the business forward, changing performance in volume or quality of work, lacking engagement, reporting late and/or leaving early, and perhaps clocking in a lot of hours but being less productive. 

Tips for Managers:

  • Engage your employees by initiating regular conversations with them to discuss work and their well-being. This enables you to develop rapport with your employees to understand what may be the underlying causes of their presenteeism.
  • Offer flexibility when possible to address challenges with physical or mental health.
  • Be sure your organization is providing adequate sick time or paid time off (PTO).
  • Model behaviors you want to see in your team, such as taking time off when you are not feeling well.
  • Stop micromanaging your team members.
  • Managers should lead by example when it comes to a healthy work/life balance. Make time for physical activity and well-being so you can best support your team.

What are Some of the Effects of Presenteeism and What Can it Lead To?

Presenteeism impacts not only an employee’s productivity but also the morale and productivity of his or her teammates. Presenteeism can also lead to safety issues and contribute to the spread of infectious diseases or lead to greater illness. And, unproductive employees can lead to missed deadlines, errors, a reduction in work quality, and poor customer experiences, which can ultimately impact a company’s overall success. 

What Can Employers and HR Departments Do to Reduce or Even Prevent Presenteeism?

  • Review your absence-management policy. Is it inadvertently contributing to presenteeism? Have you recently benchmarked your absence policy? 
  • Is employee engagement one of your focus areas? An engaged workforce is a productive workforce and helps the business thrive and progress. 
  • Consider offering flexible work schedules. Do you have the systems and policies in place to allow flexibility? For employees struggling with a physical or mental health condition, a flexible work schedule can make a huge difference in their engagement and discretionary effort.  
  • Create feedback loops to understand the challenges your employees and managers are facing so you can best support them with benefits and programs.
  • If they’re not already there, put employee well-being and mental health at or near the top of your list. Research shows 96% of CEOs believe their companies are doing enough for employee mental health, yet only 69% of employees agree. Ensure you have a strong employee accommodation program. Do employees and managers know what to do when they need or receive an accommodation request?  
  • Focus on the results and real impact your employees are making.

What Is the Cost of Presenteeism?

There are no recent studies on the cost of presenteeism, but a 2020 Deloitte study found that mental health affecting turnover, absenteeism, and presenteeism in the workplace cost the U.K. economy £53 billion–£46 billion. Because presenteeism is closely tied to employee disengagement, another statistic to consider from Gallup research shows that the decreased productivity of employees who are not engaged cost their company the equivalent of 18% of their annual salary, and productivity among highly engaged teams is 14% higher than that of teams with the lowest engagement.

Are There HR Tools Available to Help Managers Re-Engage Workers?

  1. Incorporate behavioral health into the company’s mission and values.
  2. Design benefits offerings to include input from managers and employees.
  3. Make behavioral health benefits visible and accessible, especially employee assistance programs (EAPs).
  4. Equip leaders and managers with behavioral health training and resources.
  5. Implement formal stay-at-work and return-to-work programs.
  6. Communicate that accommodations are available and whom to contact, and consider creative accommodations.
  7. Create a forum for managers to discuss employee engagement and the strategies they are using to combat presenteeism.

For managers, it’s never too late to start having regular conversations with employees, even if they’ve worked for you for a long time. With the changes to our workforce, social unrest, and the pandemic, employees need support now more than ever.

Brenda Smith is the Senior Director of Workplace Possibilities at The Standard. Her insights into the benefits world and background in customer experience led her in 2014 to work with the Workplace Possibilities team, where she is now the senior director of the program. In this role, Smith helps insurance advisors implement the Workplace Possibilities program with employers and oversees a large team of return-to-work, Americans with Disabilities Act consultants and absence consultants.