The Healthy Unwell – The Rise of Presenteeism

by | Sep 22, 2021 | Health & Wellbeing | 0 comments

The Healthy Unwell – The Rise of Presenteeism


How many times have you shown up to work without actually being there?

Presenteeism – showing up for work without being productive, due to ill health or poor mental health – is hardly a new phenomenon.

With the rise of remote working during the pandemic, it was inevitable that presenteeism would rise on the agenda, for good reason.

Presenteeism costs UK employers between £26.6bn to £29.3bn annually, which far exceeds the costs of absenteeism at £6.8bn1.

81% of employees say they usually come into the office even when they’re struggling with their mental health and would benefit from time off, compared to 6% who say they always or usually take time off instead, according to Deloitte2.

Why are so many people prioritising ‘showing up’ over their health?


Absenteeism vs presenteeism

Absenteeism (intentional or habitual absence from work) has been identified as a key issue for businesses in terms of productivity and revenue for some time.

This is understandable, given that unnecessary absences can put pressure on other employees and have a knock-on effect on overall productivity and morale.

However, comparatively, presenteeism is not only less understood, but also less valued as a key issue for employers…even when it’s costing them so much money.


The problem

Undoubtedly, there are employers that would be of the belief that employees coming into work when they aren’t 100% shows a sense of commitment and dedication.

The reason why this is such a misguided notion is that employees suffering from presenteeism are working at reduced productivity and effectiveness, which can lead to mistakes that could prove costly.

Additionally, presenteeism can point towards a greater issue in workplace culture – that being at work when unwell is better than the consequences of being absent.

In workplaces where employees engage in habitual overtime, experience overconnectivity due to technology, and where results take precedence over employee wellbeing, presenteeism is bound to occur.

You can’t see how employees feel, which is why it’s so important to tackle presenteeism before it permeates the workplace.


What needs to change?

We’ve all known a workplace that prioritises results over employee wellbeing, and this can be due to a multitude of factors:


          ‘Soldiering on’

Pressure to work means pressure to come in when you aren’t at 100%.

This isn’t always a result of maliciousness from an employer, yet it is conveyed through actions.

Praising employees for showing up to work when they aren’t well, speaking negatively about those who take time off, or minimising an employee’s issues can all contribute to the perception that it is better to just ‘show up’.


          Work, work, work

Of course, we go to work to do work – but there’s a right way and a wrong way of approaching it.

High workloads can easily become the cause of presenteeism, as employees avoid taking time off to meet deadlines and to prevent burdening their colleagues with additional workloads.

Line managers are vital towards changing this, as their level of communication and support play a huge role in the levels of work-related stress felt by employees, so promoting more positive working practices can make a huge difference.


          Ineffective absence policies

Company absence policies are designed to reduce absences, yet often, they merely increase presenteeism instead, particularly for those with more financial responsibilities.

Employees aren’t twelve, which means a discipline-based approach to absence policies is likely to be as effective as a paper umbrella.

Taking a more flexible approach to absence ensures that employees aren’t left substituting absenteeism with presenteeism.


          Setting the standard

We don’t want to say, ‘monkey see, monkey do’, but when an employer decides to show up to work when they are sick, it sets a precedent for employees to do the same.

This also applies to sending, and replying to, out of hours emails.

Unless employers specify rules around out of hours emails or specify in emails sent out of hours that there is no obligation for employees to reply or do the work, employees are left trying to follow the example set by their employer.


          Prioritise mental health

The correlation between increased mental health stigma in the workplace and increased absenteeism isn’t a stretch.

If an employee feels as though they would be judged harshly for taking time off for their mental health, then it becomes a matter of suffering in silence.

Putting a solid mental health and wellbeing strategy in place can have wider implications for the workplace in terms of inclusivity too, whilst also allowing employees to adjust areas of their work to improve their mental health.


To sum it up…

The last thing any workplace needs is everyone functioning at half-capacity, and this is usually down to a combination of factors relating to workplace culture.

Tackling presenteeism comes down to valuing the employee and their health over the outcomes of their work (which are detrimentally impacted by absenteeism anyway).

Once employers begin to set a standard around presenteeism, positive change can occur that prevents people from feeling as though their job should be put ahead of their health.








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