What Is Presenteeism?

Presenteeism refers to the lost productivity that occurs when employees are not fully functioning in the workplace because of an illness, injury, or other condition. Even though the employee may be physically at work, they may not be able to fully perform their duties and are more likely to make mistakes on the job. Although not tracked like absenteeism, the costs of presenteeism have been estimated to be larger in real terms as employees suffering from longer-term conditions see persistent drops in productivity. It is important to note that employees contributing to presenteeism are, by definition, trying to give their best efforts but are physically or mentally unable to do so.

Understanding Presenteeism

Presenteeism is thought to be common in most workplaces, even though it is a topic that is not often discussed. Employees frequently show up to work even though they may be feeling ill, experiencing physical or emotional pain, or are going through some stressful situation that is affecting their ability to focus. In these situations, employees are attempting to work despite their particular problem and the result is a less productive work day than that employee can typically deliver. As the employee is present and working, it is difficult for managers to see the productivity gap as clearly as when an employee is absent from work.

Key Takeaways

  • Presenteeism is a productivity issue that comes from workers coming to work while unwell physically, mentally, or emotionally.
  • Presenteeism is now seen as a larger problem than absenteeism as the number of workers working through illnesses and conditions is thought to be much larger than those missing work for illness.
  • Employers have attempted to address presenteeism by enacting wellness programs, providing additional types of leave, and offering flexible working schedules to provide more work–life balance.

Consequences of Presenteeism

Simply put, presenteeism costs employers money. While an employee is contributing by still showing up for work despite being injured, stressed, or ill, presenteeism can cost the employer in a few different ways. The obvious one is the productivity gap between the employee struggling through the day compared to when that employee is healthy and happy. Moreover, a struggling and stressed employee is more prone to make mistakes that could cost the company more than if the same employee was merely absent.

There is also the possibility that an employee is prolonging their illness or condition by attempting to work through it rather than resting or otherwise addressing it. This lengthens the period of time during which the loss of productivity will be a factor. Lastly, in the case of a physically sick employee who shows up to work, there is a possibility that that employee's illness will spread to other workers resulting in more presenteeism and absenteeism.

A 2003 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that pain-related productivity losses alone cost the U.S. economy $61.2 billion that year.

Reasons for Presenteeism

While presenteeism can be difficult to measure, surveys of workers have shown why it is so common in workplaces. Workplace culture plays a large role as many employees fear losing their job or missing out on opportunities for career advancement if they take time off when they could still be working. Beyond having their dedication questioned, many employees find that work cannot be easily transferred or covered off in a workplace without some consequences in terms of quality and time to completion, in addition to negative impacts on coworker relationships.

Some workplaces also have structural hurdles that encourage presenteeism such as a lack of paid sick leave. Parents in particular tend to use sick days only when absolutely necessary in order to save sick days for when their children are ill.

Reducing Presenteeism

Companies ultimately thrive or die based on the productivity of their employees. As presenteeism is a productivity drain, many companies are actively trying to combat this problem. Many of the solutions are straightforward, such as offering a wider range of leave—family, personal, medical, etc.—and more of it. This has the added advantage of signaling that an employee may be struggling with an issue if, for example, they are frequently taking medical leave and booking appointments.

Companies have also developed wellness programs aimed at raising the level of physical and mental health. This can be done by encouraging employees to exercise and adopt habits shown to improve overall well being, and some companies go further by incentivizing healthy habits.

In the end, however, most experts agree that workplace culture can play the largest role in reducing presenteeism. Managers not only need to encourage their employees to stay home when they feel unwell, but they must follow that advice themselves. As this will likely result in more absenteeism, employers have to ensure that workflows are easily transferable and that alternative arrangements like working from home can be rapidly implemented. All these solutions do come with a cost. However, when properly done, they can reduce the larger cost of lost productivity from presenteeism.

Article Sources
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  1. Journal of the American Medical Association. "Lost Productive Time and Cost Due to Common Pain Conditions in the US Workforce." Accessed Feb. 15, 2021.

  2. National Institutes of Health. "Associations Between Activities Outside Work and Presenteeism Among Korean Wage Workers: An Analysis Using a Nationwide Survey." Accessed Feb. 15, 2021.

  3. Institute for Employment Studies. "Presenteeism: A Review of Current Thinking," Pages 57-58. Accessed Feb. 15, 2021.