How to Combat the Latest HR Threat: Employee Presenteeism


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.

Presenteeism appears to be on the rise and hurting productivity for companies, according to a couple of new studies.

One study, done by United Kingdom health insurer Vitality, found that more than 40 percent of employees polled said their workplaces were affected by health problems and employees lost about 12.5 percent of their productivity due to presenteeism. This loss of productive time (along with another 1.2 percent for actual absence) translates to about 35.6 days of lost productivity per year per employee.

Unlike absenteeism, where you are actually absent from work, presenteeism is defined by Vitality as “being present at work but being limited in some aspects of job performance by a health problem and thus experiencing decreased productivity and below-normal work quality.”

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. The health problem could be physical or mental. Basically, if you are overly distracted by a health issue at work, you are physically present, but not really being productive at work.

Meanwhile, the Health and Well-Being at Work Survey Report by the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) also found evidence of unhealthy trends in the workplace. The CIPD report states that 83 percent of respondents observed presenteeism in their organization while 25 percent said the problem had gotten worse since the previous year.

Presenteeism is especially prevalent in people with mental health issues because they are less obvious than physical ailments. If you have a broken leg, it is more obvious than if you are dealing with depression.

Even if people are diagnosed with a mental health issue or overwhelming stress due to work and receive time off work for it, they might opt to go to work instead. Vitality’s research has uncovered that these are the biggest factors when it comes to presenteeism.

Apart from being detrimental to employees, presenteeism also affects businesses because employees who are physically present but not really mentally there are less productive than people who are ready to work.

But what does presenteeism actually cost a company?

According to an American Productivity Audit which was completed using the Work and Health Interview (WHI), a “computer-assisted telephone interview designed to quantify lost productive work time, including time absent from work and reduced performance, while at work as a result of health conditions…”

This study determined that the cost of employees working when they were ill surpassed $226 billion for employers. Researchers also figure that this is an underestimate since various factors such as not accounting for employee disability that leads to a continuous absence of one week or more were not counted.

Dr. Olivia Sackett, Data Scientist at Virgin Pulse Institute, says that “We don’t hear as much about presenteeism. Its impact is harder to quantify than absence due to sick days. But, our data shows that, on average, employees took about four sick days off each year.”

“But when employees reported how many days they actually lost on the job, that number shot up to 57.5 days per year–per employee.”

So, how can a business make sure its employees are not only present physically, but present mentally enough to be productive, as well?

Try these three ways of limiting presenteeism in your business:

1. Recognize mental health on par with physical health.
Mental health should be considered just as important for an employee as physical health and employees should be made aware of this so they feel comfortable talking with managers about any issues they may be experiencing. Whether they get a diagnosis from a doctor or they are merely feeling overwhelmed by work stress, the mental health of employees should be acknowledged and dealt with as seriously as any physical ailments would be.

Managers need to encourage employees to use their time off—you would never tell an employee that they have to take a pay cut because so much work needs to be done. But, when you deny the employees vacation time, you are cutting their pay—they get the same amount of money even when they do additional work. You need to create a work culture that recognizes that employees have lives—and let them live them.

Retaining top talent for your business means not only recognizing them when they are at their best, but supporting them when they are not.

2. Have a wellness program designed for mental and physical health.
Often, physical well-being leads to mental well-being. If your wellness program targets physical activity, there is a good chance that it will also help people feel better mentally.

You can help employees in this regard by always making sure they feel comfortable talking with managers about issues outside of work affecting their performance and staying active and healthy, which helps with their mental health.

Another thing you can consider is subsidizing stress tests for employees to see if they have elevated levels of stress hormones. These can act as an early indicator of possible issues.

3. Consider offering mental health benefits.
Most companies, if they can, offer health, dental and maybe optical benefits, which are all useful for people. But, not many companies offer benefits for things like therapy. If you are able to swing it, providing these kinds of benefits can be extremely helpful for employees. Mental health benefits can also help with the retention of employees.

Providing comprehensive insurance can also allow employees to seek out a doctor’s help when they are ill rather than suffering in silence. Additionally, encouraging people to get their flu shots can really cut down on illness, and, therefore, both absenteeism and presenteeism.

If you combine these solutions, you’ll have employees who take care of themselves and know that their bosses are okay with them taking care of themselves. And, you get to have people who can focus on their work when they are working, making everybody more productive.