Given the proven and substantial costs of presenteeism, the rise is bad news for businesses. But before we get into what businesses can do about it, it’s important to define precisely what presenteeism means.
What does presenteeism mean?
The definition of presenteeism has evolved in recent years.
Where once it referred solely to working for longer than necessary, it now refers to both working for longer than necessary and working whilst suffering genuine health problems.
Staff who routinely work long into the evening are exhibiting presenteeism.
Equally, staff who turn up to work while battling things like migraines, back pain, IBS or depression are exhibiting presenteeism.
It’s incidents of the latter that have trebled in recent years, which is likely to be alarming to HR professionals:
Because working while unwell has been proven by academics to costs businesses money.
The proven costs of presenteeism
Anecdotally, it seems clear working while unwell will reduce productivity. But several studies have looked at precisely how much presenteeism costs businesses.
In a paper published as far back as 2003, the researcher Walter F. Scott found depression set U.S. employers back some $35 billion a year in reduced performance at work. Months later, a second study found the costs of presenteeism when employees were suffering things like arthritis, headaches and back problems totalled nearly $47 billion.
To put the figures into context, the total costs of presenteeism in each case were roughly three times the costs of any absenteeism brought about by the same health issues.
Clearly, presenteeism costs businesses a great deal of money. What is it businesses can do about it?
How to address presenteeism
It could be argued encouraging sick employees to take time off could boost productivity overall. After all, it seems probable those who take time off when ill will recover quicker, wiping out the ongoing costs of presenteeism. Sadly, there isn’t much research on the topic at present.
A much better ploy – and one endorsed by the CIPD – is preventing illnesses in the first place through employee wellbeing programmes. It’s advice Southport-based law firm Fletchers Solicitors have put into practice.
After noticing a relatively high prevalence of one-day sickness absences, the solicitors decided to take steps to address potential presenteeism.
In an effort to promote employee wellbeing, the company began running mental health awareness training and “personal resilience” workshops to enable staff to identify stress and develop coping strategies. The management also introduced subsidised gym and yoga class memberships.
A second tactic worth investigating – and one linked to employee wellbeing – is the introduction of flexible working programmes.
Flexible working make senses in theory: employees with no fixed working hours can choose to work when most productive. Presumably, flexible hours would see fewer people battling through migraines or attempting to work when suffering from something like IBS, and instead taking time away from work as necessary.
Champions of flexible working practices include Fletchers (mentioned above) and London-based branding agency Whistlejacket. The views of Sir Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology and CIPD President, add further weight to the argument.
“If you’ve got a gig employer who wants you present then you’ll get presenteeism” says Cooper, “but if you have a flexible working culture then it won’t necessarily lead to presenteeism.”
Although the above are practical steps companies can take to reduce presenteeism, company culture reportedly has an overriding influence on presenteeism.
As the CIPD’s latest health and well-being at work report noted: “Organisational cultures and work pressures are more powerful in guiding employee behaviour than wellbeing initiatives.”
It seems like culture, then, is the all-important factor. Develop a culture of wellbeing to increase the quality of employee performance as well as the quantity of employee output.
Fail to do so and subsidised gym memberships will have little effect.
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