Down and Out: The Hidden Costs of Presenteeism


When employees don’t feel so hot, or have a fever or migraine, the smart move is to stay home and recuperate. But, recently, there’s been a growing trend for employees to show up to work despite not feeling 100 percent. It’s called presenteeism—and it could be hurting your business in some surprising ways. 

Going Through the Motions

Sick employees simply go through the motions instead of bringing their A-game. They aren’t very productive, and the work that actually gets completed isn’t very good. Mistakes are made, details are overlooked, and opportunities are missed. Plus, sick employees look unprofessional to clients and are demoralizing to co-workers.

Worst of all, presenteeism is contagious in more ways than one. When employees see co-workers report for duty when sick, they think it’s expected of them, too. And just wait until you have entire departments out of commission because one employee created an illness outbreak during the holidays—a.k.a. flu season. I believe the word you’re searching for is “epidemic.” And no, it’s not good for your bottom line.

Causes of Presenteeism

So, why do employees shrug off illnesses instead of using their sick leave? They may feel their job is too important or worry they’ll burden their co-workers. Or, they may lack job security and fear unemployment. It turns out, many employers end up encouraging presenteeism in an effort to reduce absenteeism.

Even if your organization offers generous sick leave, employees may still decide to tough it out in favor of using those sick days to take care of children or elderly dependents. Bottom line, there are a ton of reasons why a duty-bound employee might show up to work sick.

What Employers Can Do

Focusing on the overall well-being of your workforce is one of the best ways to reduce presenteeism. And a wellness program can be your not-so-secret weapon in keeping employees healthy and productive. Focusing on common chronic conditions can provide employees with a way to manage conditions so they don’t affect their work.

It’s also important to address stress, depression, and mental well-being—which can be just as damaging to workflow as physical illnesses. Workplace wellness programs have evolved in recent years to focus on mental well-being and include components like stress management.

Employers should also consider offering on-site flu vaccinations and a work-from-home option for sick employees (if their job doesn’t require their physical presence). Don’t make employees choose between using paid time off or going to work sick when they can get the job done from home.

Employees who miss work can definitely affect productivity, your costs, and be a safety hazard. One study found employees with access to paid sick leave were 28 percent less likely to suffer nonfatal workplace injuries. It turns out, absenteeism may not be the evil supervillain it was made out to be. So much emphasis is placed on reducing absenteeism, employers forget that presenteeism is just as damaging to productivity. This holiday season, make a point to consider how presenteeism is affecting your business, then resolve to address it in the year ahead.

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