Presenteeism in the Workplace – What is it and How to Address it

Presenteeism in the workplaceAmerican businesses lose billions of dollars every year due to employees missing work due to physical sickness and mental health issues. Many businesses also deal with the practice of absenteeism – employees missing work on a regular basis without good reason. But increasingly, research is showing that presenteeism can cost businesses far more if they fail to address the issue.

What is Presenteeism?

Presenteeism is the act of showing up to work sick, injured, overly fatigued or otherwise not operating at normal levels of productivity. Research shows that presenteeism due to illness, depression or other ailments is a common but often unaddressed issue that can be very costly.

The cost of presenteeism

The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reported that depression costs employers in the U.S. around $35 billion a year in lower productivity. In addition, pain resulting from headaches, back problems, arthritis and other conditions cost nearly $47 billion. Compare that to a telephone survey of 29,000 working adults that put the total cost of presenteeism in the workplace at more than $150 billion per year – nearly twice the combined cost of depression and pain.

JAMA studies also found that on-the-job (presenteeism) productivity losses resulting from depression and pain were nearly three times the productivity loss when workers were absent for these same conditions. In other words, it costs employers more when employees suffering from pain and depression show up to work than when they stay home.

Causes of Presenteeism In The Workplace

People who come to work when sick not only have issues performing up to par at their jobs, but they can also create more serious problems.

For example, they can spread flu viruses and other highly contagious diseases to coworkers, customers or clients. In hospitals and doctor’s offices, employees can compromise patient safety. Food service employees can endanger food safety and spread potentially fatal diseases, such as hepatitis. With so much potential for disaster, why do people show up at work when sick or unable to perform well?

Reasons for presenteeism

Common reasons for presenteeism include:

  • Saving up time off. In dual-earner households where both spouses work, people will go to work when they are ill to save time off so they can stay at home when their children get sick. The same is true for the “Sandwich Generation”. Approximately 25 million American workers provide at-home care for elderly parents or other family members. These people will also work when sick to save time off for parental care.
  • Fear of consequences. Many workers fear that taking sick time makes them appear less committed to their jobs than other employees. By missing work, some people are concerned about resulting disciplinary action, lack of advancement or losing their jobs.
  • Heavy workloads. Taking sick time can burden coworkers with additional job duties. Plus, employees dread coming back to a backlog of work, missed deadlines and new work to catch up on.
  • Little or no paid sick days. Every work place culture is different. In many blue-collar professions, workers receive no paid sick leave at all. Therefore, a sick worker will report to work to avoid loss of pay.
  • Loyalty to the team. Most people care about doing a good job and pulling their weight. Some people will work when sick to avoid letting the team down; they may also be concerned that nobody else can do the job as well as they do.

Add up all these reasons and it can easily lead to a “culture of presenteeism”. People feel obligated to come to work even when they’re sick and experience feelings of fear and guilt if they stay home.

Changing a Culture of Presenteeism

What can employers do to turn the tide on this costly trend?

Most importantly, employers must recognize that the problem exists. Learning about what causes presenteeism and how much it costs their businesses is a good place to start. Then managers and supervisors must be made aware of the magnitude of the problem, given the tools to address it, and held accountable for appropriately dealing with employees who come to work sick.

How to change the culture

  • Provide a good healthcare benefits package. People often come to work ill because the cost of going to the doctor or seeking other medical treatment is too high. Offering a tax-advantaged benefit account, such as a Flexible Spending Account (FSA) or Health Savings Account (HSA), can help ease the cost of healthcare for employees. They can use the accounts to see the doctor or pay for the appropriate medications to get well again.
  • Educate employees about the dangers of coming to work sick. In addition, review time off and absence control policies to ensure they don’t unintentionally encourage presenteeism.
  • Develop a workplace policy on presenteeism. The policy should have clear guidelines and be communicated to all levels of the organization. Providing sufficient paid sick leave or time off can also help reduce the instances of people coming in when ill; employees should also know under what conditions they should stay home and when they can return to work. Make it a policy to send sick employees home, and offer the option to work from home when not well.
  • Strive to boost employee morale. Studies have found that companies with low morale have more sick workers showing up for work. Providing some flexibility in employees’ work arrangements can help boost morale and decrease presenteeism. It also fosters a culture that discourages employees from coming in sick.
  • Take disciplinary action (when necessary). This is especially important in businesses where customer or public safety is paramount. Give a verbal warning the first time employees show up sick, and send them home. If the presenteeism continues, apply increasingly severe consequences, up to and including termination.
  • Set a good example. The quickest way to get employees to ignore any company policy is to have the CEO or another senior executive violate it. If you want workers to stay home when they’re sick, you must do it as well.

It may seem counter-intuitive that having sick employees stay home costs less than having them come to work, but the research supports it. Actively discouraging presenteeism at work not only saves you money, it also creates a safer, healthier environment for your employees and customers. When properly addressed, reducing presenteeism benefits all who come in contact with your business.

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