How the Culture of Presenteeism Hurts Employees and Employers

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“Presenteeism” refers to the practice of being present at work but not productive, whether due to illness, disengagement, stress, or some other factor.

The culture of presenteeism is widespread. According to one global study, the average worker loses 53.5 days’ worth of productivity to presenteeism every year.

Surging rates of presenteeism highlight the fact that people feel under more pressure than ever to go into work — and stay at work for longer — even if they’re ill. Presenteeism has been linked to concerns about job security: When people don’t feel their job is safe, they’ll head to the office even when they know they’re too sick or stressed to really work. No one wants to be seen slacking while everyone else is putting the hours in.

In a business environment with a culture of presenteeism, it becomes incredibly difficult for any one employee to break the mold and take time off when they need it. If you see a colleague with an awful cold come into work anyway, you might feel expected to do the same. After all, you don’t want your manager to think you’re lazy or apathetic about your career.

The problem, though, is that if you go into work while ill, you’ll put in the hours without actually getting much done.

How the Culture of Presenteeism Impacts Employees

The culture of presenteeism seriously harms  both the physical and mental health of employees. When you’re ill, you need to recuperate. You’re not doing yourself any favors sitting at your desk sniffling or desperately trying to focus with a splitting headache. Plus, you may also pass your nasty cold on to fellow employees.

Presenteeism makes illnesses last longer than they need to, and truth be told, it’s just a miserable experience to work while sick. Rising rates of presenteeism are associated with increases in stress, anxiety, and depression. The fact that mental health problems are still stigmatized means people are much less likely to take time off due to poor mental health. Conditions such as anxiety and depression, much like the flu, can make it incredibly difficult to concentrate — and it takes longer to recover from both mental and physical health problems if you’re not taking time to rest.

Businesses Suffer, Too

If businesses were benefiting from presenteeism, that could provide some rationale for the phenomenon, if not an excuse.

However, businesses are actually harmed by presenteeism. It is estimated that presenteeism costs employers $21.2 billion a year in the UK. In the US, that number may be as high as $150 billion. Presenteeism is associated with lower staff morale, more employee errors, and higher turnover rates, all of which compound to make productivity and revenue losses even greater.

Changing the culture of presenteeism requires action from both employees and businesses. If you’re sick and you know that you really need to rest, take your sick days. You’re entitled to them.

Meanwhile, employers should take steps to discourage presenteeism. Communicating clearly with employees is key here. Employees should feel they can be trusted to take time off when they’re unwell. The expectation that employees must suffer in silence at work is helping no one. It’s time for businesses to make employee well-being a top priority.

Sam Woolfe writes for Inspiring Interns.

By Sam Woolfe