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Presenteeism: what it is and why you can't ignore it

Aude Creveau

Most employers would give their right arm to have a dedicated, loyal employee. Someone who goes above and beyond the job description.

But what happens when your employees start working while sick, injured, or during non-work hours? This trend – known as presenteeism – is a rising problem in the workforce.

According to a recent CIPD survey, 83% of participants reported presenteeism in their organisation – an increase within the past year. The unfortunate part is, many employers are actually happy with the fact that their workers are showing up regardless of their health. However, not keeping track of working hours and especially allowing working overtime excessively go against the EU working time directive rules.

While this may seem great at first, it can actually have negative, long-term effects on both the employee and the company. After all, employees can't give 100% if they're not feeling 100%.

On the flip-side, absent employees can't produce, either. So how can you avoid presenteeism without sacrificing quality work? Keep reading to find out!

Factors that contribute to presenteeism

Before you can address presenteeism it's important to identify the cause. Most employers must look inward at their daily practices and policies.
What about your company makes employees feel the need to work under unhealthy circumstances? Here are a few areas to consider.

Management style

Do your direct managers lead by example? Do they encourage and praise employees for their work? Or instead, apply an unhealthy amount of pressure to work extended hours?

Is there a negative culture surrounding time off? Be sure your management is encouraging staff to invest in their physical and mental health. This means taking vacation and sick days when needed and considering adding an absence management software to make leave requests easier.

Even good intentions surrounding things like attendance can backfire. Avoid giving out praise or awards for employees that simply show up. Instead, help your staff set sales goals or reach other personal achievements.

Excessive workloads

Another cause of presenteeism is employees that are overworked. Heavy workloads were reported as the main cause of stress among 46% of employees
When workers have multiple jobs to perform, they often can't finish their obligations within a regular workday. Employees are constantly playing catch-up – working nights, weekends, and holidays.

Financial and job security concerns 

Job security is a primary concern of most working adults. Fear drives countless people to work extended hours and during times of serious illness or injury.
Every employee wants to be considered "irreplaceable". Not to mention, 78% of workers are currently living paycheck to paycheck and can't afford to lose their jobs.

The problem with presenteeism

Presenteeism in the workforce is growing for two main reasons – high-demand by employers and fear of unemployment. While a good work ethic is hard to come by, presenteeism can have long-term, negative effects.

Long-term physical health

Employees that burn the candle at both ends will inevitably burnout altogether. It's unhealthy for a person to work over 40 hours per week consistently. It's also dangerous for staff to work while seriously ill or injured.

A recent study by the University College London found that employees who worked more than 55 hours per week were 40% more likely to develop atrial fibrillation (the most common cardiac arrhythmia) than those who worked a normal, 40-hour workweek.

According to lead researcher Professor Mika Kivimaki, "These findings show that long working hours are associated with an increased risk of atrial fibrillation, the most common cardiac arrhythmia."

Mental health

But your physical body isn't the only thing affected by working extended hours. In time, your mental health suffers.

Things like stress, depression, and extreme exhaustion are more common amongst employees working more than 11 hours per day.

Decreased productivity

This is one of the main ways that presenteeism negatively impacts both employees and the company as a whole. Don't be fooled into thinking just because your staff is physically present that their performance will improve. In fact, the opposite is true.

Just like in grade school, going to work sick puts the rest of the office at risk of illness. What impacts productivity and your bottom line more than one employee out sick? Multiple employees out with the same illness.

Health insurer Vitality reported health-related lost productivity is costing the UK economy more than $100 billion (£77.5 billion). Employees lost an average of 35.6 days of work due to sickness. And more than 90% of that time was due to presenteeism.

Steps to reduce presenteeism

Now that you know some of the root causes of presenteeism, you can take steps to reduce this workplace epidemic.

Send people home

This is a simple, but effective piece of advice. Managers and shift leaders need to send home any employee who is visibly ill. These administrative positions are at the forefront of addressing presenteeism.

Lead by example

Another way managers can reduce presenteeism is to lead by example. Taking off when they're sick and leaving on time each day encourages other employees to do the same.

Staff look to supervisors for guidance and direction. Show them that taking much-needed time off is acceptable, and even prefered, by doing so yourself.

Investigate potential causes

Knowledge is power. Do some investigating into why your employees feel pressured to come to work sick and work overtime.

Excessive workloads, understaffing, and certain mental health issues are all potential causes for presenteeism.

Make it known that you don't want staff members present who aren't physically or mentally equipped to perform their jobs.

Review policies

Sometimes you need to evaluate presenteeism on an individual basis. Make sure every employee is receiving enough annual leave – and using it!

In some cases, a policy change allowing for more holiday time may be in order. Do certain policies make it seem as if taking time-off is frowned upon? If so, it might be time for a revision.

Monitor presenteeism

Time and attendance software is a great way to monitor staffs' exact start and end times. This helps managers spot any workers regularly putting in excessive hours and not taking scheduled breaks.

If overtime is an issue, an automated time tracker will show you (and the employee) exactly how much overtime they've accrued. Then, together, you can make a plan to reduce their workload and hours.

Make presenteeism a problem of the past

While some employers might be fooled into thinking employees that work through their illnesses or during their days off is a positive thing, those aware of the negative effects of presenteeism know better.

These effects are detrimental for both individual employees and organisations as a whole. The good news is, the right approach combined with support from managers and technology can help tackle this growing epidemic.

HR software can help employers detect early warning signs of presenteeism. Is your time tracking system up-to-date? Start your free trial today with kiwiHR and invest in the future health of your business.

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