Ever-mindful of the need to complete projects and stay on top of timelines, bosses are rarely happy when an employee calls in sick. But while absenteeism is a real concern for most businesses, they pay less attention to another productivity killer: presenteeism, or going to work while ill.
It’s relatively easy to measure absenteeism, by tracking the number of sick days that an employee takes. Measuring presenteeism is more difficult, because there’s no clear definition of what constitutes working while ill. But a recent survey from pension and benefits consultancy Morneau Sheppell found that presenteeism is widespread: 81% of respondents reported having gone into work while unable to perform as they would have liked or had previously in the preceding six months. And 62% indicated that underperformance was caused by illness.
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One reason those numbers are so high is because employers have evolved systems to deal with calling in sick, but not for working while ill. “There’s no exact rules or constraints against presenteeism exactly, where there are of course various constraints built into the job relationship that keep absence low,” notes Gary Johns, professor of management at the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University in Montreal.
People with demanding jobs are more likely to report engaging in presenteeism, says Johns. That’s partly because the kinds of employees with these roles are often highly motivated to get things done and have clients who depend on their work being done on time. But there’s also a less positive motivation. “People in some kinds of demanding jobs don’t have too much power,” notes Johns. “As a result of that, they feel inclined to go to work when they’re ill because either they’re not going to be paid, or they’re going to have their employment threatened due to absenteeism.”
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Another thing that often prompts presenteeism is strong team structures. “People are disinclined to let their teammates down, so in more team-based structures it appears that you get more presenteeismm” says Johns.
Presenteeism may actually be more costly to employers than absenteeism. People are less productive when they’re ill, with studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggesting that depression and pain cause three times as much productivity loss as absence. So employers might benefit from suggesting that sick employees stay home and recover rather than coming into the office—in effect, encouraging absenteeism to reduce presenteeism.
But Johns points out that the type and severity of the illness affect just how much productivity a person loses to sickness. “We’re talking here about a gamut of illnesses that range from contagion to much more common pedestrian problems such as lower back pain, migraine, allergies, and asthma,” he says. He disagrees with the idea that since employees are less productive when they’re sick, they may as well stay home. “You’re probably semi-productive,” he says. “Some productivity is better than no productivity.”
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Policies around calling in sick can push employees towards either absenteeism or presenteeism, so businesses need to strike a healthy balance. Johns says that managers are better placed to understand the productivity and health concerns of their direct reports than the HR department or executive team. “While I think there should be a general policy regarding presenteeism, I think it needs to be enacted a lot more on the shop floor or in the trading room, or wherever the problem is happening,” he says.
Johns sums up the dilemma of managing absenteeism and presenteeism in a single question: “How do we balance some degree of expectation for people to show up with on the other hand being sensitive to the fact that people might be reticent to take a day off when they probably damn well should?” It’s a question more business should ask themselves.
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Does your company have policies concerning presenteeism? How do you encourage people to stay home sick when they need to? Share your thoughts and experiences using the comments section below.