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At Work But Hardly Working: Presenteeism vs. Productivity

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For many people, just making it in to work each day is a victory. Between planning out how to avoid traffic during the daily commute, keeping track of family activities and maintaining at least some semblance of a social life, there are a lot of things other than work weighing heavily on the mind of the average employee during work hours. Add in the stresses and symptoms that come with being sick or dealing with a medical condition, and now you have an employee who might be physically present, but whose mind couldn’t be further from the task at hand.

This scenario, in which employees choose to come to work while feeling ill or unwell, is called presenteeism, and it’s actually a big problem for employers. And even though experts agree that presenteeism is far more prevalent and concerning than its cousin absenteeism, they’ve struggled to quantify its effects.

Why is presenteeism so prevalent?

In order to figure out how to address presenteeism, the first step is to understand why it’s such a widespread problem.

Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest reasons employees come to work despite feeling ill is that they can’t afford not to. For employees who don’t earn sick leave or paid time off, taking a single day off without pay can have disastrous consequences for their family’s finances.

Another reason employees choose to work through their illness is because they feel like taking a sick day may be seen as a sign of weakness or an indication of poor motivation by their employer. Other employees report that they’re simply “too busy” to take a sick day.

Costs of employee presenteeism

With regard to absenteeism, when employees are literally absent from work, the costs are fairly straightforward: 100 percent of the day’s potential productivity is lost. If an employee comes to work, but isn’t fully focused on work due to an illness or medical condition, at least some work is getting done, but it’s hard to say exactly how much. However, research suggests that presenteeism costs employers upwards of $250 billion each year.

If you’re thinking that estimate sounds a bit high, think about presenteeism like this: If a production line worker comes to work with the flu, those symptoms (coughing, fever, headache, stuffiness, fatigue, etc.) will not only impact the speed at which he or she is able to work, but also the quality of the work. This has a direct impact on the speed of workers further down the line, who may have to deal with subpar product. If the sick employee is working with heavy machinery of any sort, his or her diminished capacity also places them at a higher risk for a work-related injury. Moreover, any other employee the sick employee comes into contact with is put at risk of contracting the same illness, thus causing this cycle to repeat itself.

What can employers do to minimize presenteeism?

At its core, presenteeism is the product of two things: an organization’s human resources policies and its company culture. In order to minimize the effects of presenteeism, employers should look at both to determine a proper course of action.

Human Resources Policies

  • Attendance policies are commonplace amongst the majority of employers. While these policies are necessary to curb absenteeism, organizations suffering from a high level of presenteeism may want to think twice about overly harsh penalties for missing work.
  • Policies that encourage sick employees to stay home or allow managers to send sick employees home will help reinforce the idea with employees.
  • Although there are currently no federal legal requirements for paid sick leave (employers subject to the Family and Medical Leave Act may be required to offer unpaid leave in certain situations), offering paid sick leave or paid time off (PTO) has been shown to reduce the effects of presenteeism.

Company Culture

  • Workplace wellness programs that encourage workers to live a healthier lifestyle have also been shown to help combat presenteeism. Examples of wellness initiatives include offering flu vaccines, hosting lunch and learn events about how to manage chronic illnesses, and fitness-tracking competitions. The key to success when it comes to wellness programs is providing education on why particular behaviors are helpful or harmful to employees.
  • How an organization handles instances of illness is just as important as having a policy in place. Managers should be instructed to react sympathetically when employees call in sick, and to not make employees feel guilty for taking a day or two off to recover.


The ultimate ideal for employers would be for every worker to be both present and productive during each and every shift. Employers need to realize, however, that their workers are people first, and employees second. The attitude an employer chooses to project when it comes to issues related to presenteeism can have a significant impact on its employees. Creating a culture and designing policies that encourage employees to take care of themselves will go a long way to helping employers strike the perfect balance between present and productive.

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