Employees attending work while unwell isn’t a sign of dedication – it’s more likely they feel pressured to be there. Presenteeism is both a prevalent and costly problem that needs to be tackled.
Just like your computer malfunctions, the photocopier jams or the printer fails, employees “break down” and get sick too, and need time out of the workplace to undergo repair.
Employee absences due to illness have long been part of organisational life. But they only form part of the equation when it comes to employee health and wellbeing.
While it’s no secret that absenteeism collectively costs organisations billions of dollars each year, the price of presenteeism is also rather hefty. A 2016 report commissioned by Pathology Awareness Australia says presenteeism costs the Australian economy in excess of $34 billion annually.
The reasons why it has become so commonplace are multifaceted, and include:
- Harsh financial operating conditions and intense competition have driven up workloads and demands, meaning that absence is simply not an option for many employees. In fact, an absence from work can be a sickening thought for many, and the idea of falling behind is just not acceptable.
- In an environment where job security is tenuous and unemployment rates are high, many employees feel that any absence from the workplace may well damage their reputation, or even put their job at risk.
- The rise of mental health issues in the workplace has also fuelled the rate of presenteeism. Mental health issues are, more often than not, long term conditions. Once limited leave entitlements are fully exhausted, an employee with ongoing mental health issues is essentially forced to attend the workplace or risk not being paid.
Now some might believe that employees coming to work unwell demonstrates outstanding commitment, and it probably does. But the reality is that sick employees are likely to be less effective, and impaired performance can be costly and pose inherent risks including:
- an increased number of further employee absences, as an unwell staff member in the workplace can spread an illness to their colleagues;
- increased likelihood of serious accidents and subsequent compensation claims due to reduced attention levels and exhaustion – particularly in organisations where heavy machinery is utilised; and
- a reduced level of customer service, a rise in the number of customer complaints and loss of business due to unwell staff servicing clients in an inferior way.
It may be well be that some organisations have seen a drop in medical absence rates – and have applauded themselves for being a healthy workplace. But have they considered that absenteeism has perhaps simply shifted to presenteeism in their workplaces?
The real question that arises is: what can we do to reduce presenteeism in the workplace?
Professor Gary Martin is the CEO and and executive director at the Australian Institute of Management WA. This is an edited version of his LinkedIn article.