Watch out for workers


It is always assumed that absenteeism is a big problem for workplaces— but in fact, presenteeism can be a bigger problem. Presenteeism, or sickness presence, is the act of showing up for work without being productive, generally because ill-health prevents it.

Presenteeism is more common in companies where long working hours are seen as the norm, and where operational demands take precedence over employee wellbeing. Sickness presence is also often a manifestation of job insecurity and, unsurprisingly, is significantly related to redundancies.

Those with more traditional views might hold that employees coming to work while under the weather is no bad thing; it shows a certain level of dedication, after all, and it means absence levels are down. However, the reality is that sick employees are likely to be ineffective, and their impaired performance could lead to errors in judgement that cost time and money to fix.


Two key psychological phenomena fuel presenteeism. The first is the ‘mere-exposure effect, which holds that the more a person is exposed to someone or something, the more they start to grow affinity. If a particular worker makes themselves more visible, they may naturally ingratiate themselves to others just by being there – even if the others don’t realise it or can’t pinpoint what is it they like about the ‘presentee’. And, before you know it, the presentee might get a raise or promotion.

This bias exists alongside another psychological concept called the ‘halo effect’: associating positive impressions of someone with their actual character. You start to think of the person who’s bringing you coffee or asking about your weekend as maybe ‘a sweet guy’ – but then I take the mental step of thinking you’re a productive worker, too — even though you’ve given me no evidence in this coffee-cup situation to make me think that you’re a hard worker. This can lead to promotions or other benefits going to in-person workers.

Properly managing presenteeism not only saves companies money in the short and longer term, it vastly contributes to employee engagement and productivity. Here are five ways to help you reduce sickness presence in your company.


In some organisations, employees who come to work when sick are viewed as dedicated, and it’s held as the norm that team leaders soldier through illness to get the job done. Feeling real or imagined pressure to come to work when ill reduces employee morale and negatively impacts physical and mental wellbeing. Make it clear that your company expects sick employees to stay home and recover.

Absence management policies that focus solely on sick leave provide only a partial picture of your company’s health-related productivity losses. Punitive sick leave policies, especially, can do more harm than good as they may discourage employees from taking leave when they need to, leading to situations where absenteeism is simply substituted with presenteeism. Ensure that your line managers understand the relationship between absenteeism and presenteeism, that they’re supported to adopt a more flexible approach to absence, and that they provide support to employees making a return to work after a period of illness.

High workload demands can cause employees to avoid taking time off when they need it because they’re worried about deadlines or overburdening co-workers in their absence. How line managers facilitate the management of employees’ workloads, and how they communicate and provide support play with a big role in the amount of work-related stress people experience. Your managers must be aware of organisational and managerial causes of work-related stress and ill health and have the soft skills to promote positive working practice and wellbeing.

Employees with health problems, especially mental-health-related ones, often feel unable to disclose them to their managers. And managers are rarely trained to support them effectively if or when they do. It’s vital that your managers are educated to notice the signals associated with employees experiencing high levels of stress or mental health problems, and that they feel equipped to have open and supportive conversations with them about their health. Workplace training and awareness raising of common mental and physical health issues will help reduce stigma and provide people with a better understanding of workplace wellbeing.

As an employer, you need to practice what you preach. If you don’t want your staff to come to work while they’re ill, then you shouldn’t either. Avoid creating a workplace culture which accepts presenteeism. Encourage employees to give themselves appropriate time to recover properly. If they face any issues or concerns, they can get in touch. However, once they’ve taken sick leave, ensure they take time to recover.

If presenteeism isn’t already on your radar, it should be. Making appropriate changes to line manager training and addressing problematic aspects of workplace culture will help ensure your workforce is healthier and more motivated in the long term.

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