What is presenteeism? The price of productivity loss

Being at work vs being productive at work: The difference comes down to presenteeism in your workforce and how it impacts your business’s bottom line.

lauren payne

by Lauren Payne

Presenteeism is a common – and costly – phenomenon in the business world, yet not as common of a discussion within company walls. While coming into the office “come what may” was once seen as good work ethic, today many companies realize just how much it costs them. Learn more about the problem, how to spot it, and how to help your employees while helping your business.

What is presenteeism and what causes it?

Contrary to “absenteeism” (when employees don’t work as result of an issue) or “leaveism” (when employees work during non-paid hours or paid time off), presenteeism refers to employees working when they shouldn’t. More specifically, the term describes when employees perform work while not in the optimal physical or mental health state to do so. This could be due to an illness, injury, stressful work or personal issues, or other performance-impairing conditions.

The main cause behind presenteeism is that many employees who face challenges with health and/or mental issues feel as though they can’t take off work to deal with them. This perspective has become even more prominent in the era of increased teleworking. With more employees working remotely, they feel the need to compensate for not being in the office and consequently to be constantly connected to work.

Presenteeism decreases productivity

Presenteeism is problematic because employees are present at work but not fully performing. Even though they’re working on tasks, health problems, family concerns, or psychological issues hinder employees from doing those tasks well. In his powerful TEDxNorwichED Talk on workplace mental health, Tom Oxley states that “a third to a half of us will experience some form of stress, anxiety and depression during our working lives” and names presenteeism as one culprit for not effectively addressing those issues.

In fact, productivity loss from presenteeism has been shown to be higher than that for lost workdays due to absenteeism. The 2015 Global Challenge 100 Day Journey and the World Health Organization (WHO) Workplace Health and Productivity Questionnaire (HPQ) offer data to support this comparison. These studies showed that absenteeism costs companies about 4 days a year per employee, compared to an even more impressive 57.5 days lost to presenteeism.

The cost of presenteeism for companies

While presenteeism remains an indirect cost and can be difficult to quantify, there are statistics that show just that this wide-spread underlying issue has been undercutting businesses across the globe.
An American Productivity Audit estimates that decreased productivity due to presenteeism costs the US economy more than 150 billion US dollars per year. In Japan, that estimate totals about 3,055 US dollars per employee per year. According to a 2019 Health and Wellbeing at Work study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development, over 8 in 10 UK employees see issues of presenteeism in their workplace.

To calculate presenteeism’s impact on your business, you can start by looking at the national estimates in your operating jurisdictions. For a more precise picture, you can use the HPQ and the Stanford Presenteeism Scale to assess any related effects in your facilities.

How can you protect employees and your business?

Many employees keep issues to themselves, especially if they feel the work environment wouldn’t welcome the discussion or would involve judgment. Often, the signs of presenteeism hide in plain sight. Some signals include employees who are easily distracted, come in late (or leave early), have more conflicts at work, fall asleep on the job, or show a decrease in production levels.

Corporate, HR, team managers, and EHS professionals alike need to be aware of these issues and work together to protect against them. Paying closer attention to your employees and how they’re working is the first step to spotting presenteeism before it becomes a bigger issue.

It’s also incredibly important to provide opportunities for employees to share their concerns. Just as employees communicate about a physical injury, they need to know that the same applies to any mental health or other “unseen” issues that could affect their performance. Encourage your workers to come to managers, HR, or another designated role. When they do, provide a space and time for an open – and open-minded – conversation about their stress, concerns, and what they feel is distracting them from their jobs.

After educating your entire company on the dangers of presenteeism and how to recognize it, have each team take the necessary steps to spotlight and solve presenteeism issues. Where possible, HR roles might revise policies to ensure they don’t unrealistically discourage absence.

If you’re an EHS professional, you can help prevent and resolve presenteeism by including its signs and symptoms in health and safety assessments as well as any related training. When evaluating or reporting incidents, think to look at the employee’s history of performance to check if there are any underlying and potentially chronic issues that could continue to cause problems.

Overcome the costly power of presenteeism over your team

Most companies can agree that happy and healthy employees are better employees. And, as such, the pressure associated with zero absence isn’t usually what’s best for business. Identifying and protecting workers against the stress and mental health risks behind presenteeism is critical not only for the employees that suffer from them but also your business’s well-being. Stay ahead of potential issues by keeping everyone aware and keeping lines of communication open. By making it a priority to prevent presenteeism, you’ll be safeguarding employees while setting up your company for more sustainable success.

Subscribe to stay on top of emerging EHS issues with our latest resources

Sign up to receive updates on what’s happening in environmental, health and safety regulations – and what to do about it, including: today’s risks and safeguarding against them, changing regulatory developments and your requirements, trends to get ahead of in your program…