How will business face the problem of presenteeism?

Most of us have experienced days at work, when we are not flowing at our best, but with the increasing pressures in the workplace and the need to achieve more with less, presenteeism is becoming a real issue for business.

Many organisations have measures in place to track working days lost due to illness. However, by focusing on reducing absenteeism, are we neglecting evidence that suggests presenteeism is also on the increase and is indeed more prevalent?  According to a US study (Dixon 2005) employee burn out and lost productivity were 7.5 times greater from presentees than from absentees.

What is Presenteeism?

Difficult to define, the broad definition is “time at work when ill”. This includes physical illness as well as mental health and fatigue.  And because employees are physically “at work” it can be difficult to measure the problem. Whatever businesses do to tackle this, the key is to recognise the commercial risk it presents and the need to prevent it.

The risks of Presenteeism

As companies strive to compete harder, employees are often those who feel the strain and a company / team culture is created where they feel less able to take time off.  This impacts on:

  1. The Employee: a working employee that’s unwell will be unable to perform as well, will take longer to recover and can end up with long term sickness problems. On top of this they may find themselves in a downward spiral as they turn to medication to disguise the problem (which can impact effectiveness/safety of using equipment) or caffeine, alcohol and sugar to cope and get through their day – all of which can have a negative impact on their personal wellbeing, health and their body’s ability to repair itself
  2. The Team: Unwell employees can pass on illness to those around them. Even if not physically ill, their presenteeism and demotivation caused by mental ill health such as stress can impact on the morale of the wider team and company culture
  3. The Business: A business with a workforce suffering from low morale is a difficult business to recruit into. Presenteeism also has a significant bearing on productivity and the bottom line. According to Hemp (2004) it can cause a 30% reduction in productivity, so clearly it is not a problem to be taken lightly if an organisation wants sustainability

The causes of Presenteeism

There are many studies that have researched the factors causing presenteeism, some of which are summarised below:

–        Job insecurity: the fear of losing a job if the hours aren’t put in

–        Needs of others:  if an employee’s role impacts directly on others’ ability to do their roles

–        Concern for colleagues: of imposing extra workload on others

–        Pressures of workload: the stress of workload building up while absent

–        Superiors’ behaviour: and how they manage their time.  Are they taking time off when they need to or are they presentees too?

–        Working culture: the fear of absence being regarded as poor performance

–        Work environment: The physical workspace and its impact on wellbeing, as well as the team culture (harmony v conflict and discrimination)

Prevention of Presenteeism

In October, ACAS launched their new guidelines on promoting positive mental health in the workplace, putting the onus firmly on business to address these issues. Here’s our 3 step process to addressing the problem: 

  1. AWARENESS: The first step is in increasing awareness of this issue throughout the business at all levels.  If ignored, it becomes so engrained in company culture that it is not recognised, and worse still, not addressed
  1. MANAGEMENT TRAINING: Next it’s time to put wellbeing on the agenda for employees. This involves educating management and supervisors so that they are able to foster a culture of support.   This also requires training to ensure management acts as a role model in managing its own absence and presence – setting an example that it is ok to be absent when required
  1. PREVENTION: By recognising this as a productivity issue and finding the potential factors causing presenteeism. Companies need to develop on-going programmes and processes to support employee wellbeing, including the environment, work space, team culture, and employee self-care (physical and mental)


If you’d like any help in implementing a proactive approach to reducing presenteeism within your business, please contact us: (UK) (S. Africa)


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