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  • Writer's pictureTemara Willis

What is Presenteeism?

Updated: Dec 30, 2023

Everyone is familiar with the concept of absenteeism, but what is presenteeism, and what is the impact?

In a nutshell, presenteeism is when you turn up to work, but the reality is you just do what you can to get through your workday. You are not productive, nor do you add value. But you turned up, right? Isn't that good enough?

As defined by researchers, presenteeism isn't about being lazy or average at your job. It refers to the loss of productivity occurring from actual health problems. It is the real burden of feeling like you need to - keep on keeping on - even when you are mentally or physically not up to it.

Researchers assert that presenteeism can cut individual productivity by 30 %. In 2016, Pathology Awareness Australia valued the impact of presenteeism on the Australian economy at $34 billion yearly. Presenteeism is emerging to be a more expensive problem than its productivity-reducing counterpart, absenteeism. So why do we spend so much time managing absenteeism but very little on understanding or addressing presenteeism? Well, for one, it is not often discussed, so awareness isn't high, and unlike taking a day off work away from the workplace, presenteeism isn't as obvious.

So why is presenteeism on the rise? The reasons are multifaceted. Suffering the effects of a pandemic globally has meant that job security is of concern for employees, with unemployment rates in Australia as high as ever. For many, the thought of taking time off work isn't an option. Even if you have leave entitlements available. Employees are nervous about the consequences of taking time off and how this will be viewed. So alternatively, they turn up not healthy or productive.

Additionally, workloads and the hours we work have increased. There is an apparent blur between working from home and your home life. As well, the perceived burden of letting team members down and burdening them with your work isn't something people want to do, so instead, employees soldier on. Employees also make comments to me like, "Why bother taking annual leave? When I come back, the work demands will only be more significant." Or, "even if I am unwell and take the day off, I still receive calls and am expected to respond to emails from home".

In 2019, the Productivity Commission released a draft report estimating that mental ill-health and suicide cost Australia $180 billion per year, with treatment and services not meeting community expectations. The workplace is not immune to mental health issues or the unavailability of services within the community, resulting in employees being forced to attend work without treatment leading to a significant increase in the rate of presenteeism. Being at work but just not capable of adding value.

Some of you might be reading this thinking this isn't too bad. Doesn't it show a greater level of commitment if I turn up to work under the weather? Well, in a nutshell, it is. While it might demonstrate that you stoically put your needs secondary to your work, it can lead to higher employee sick leave in the longer term and increased mental health problems among staff. So while you think you are doing the right thing, you are, in fact creating longer-lasting problems.

To ensure that presenteeism isn't an issue in your place, presenteeism needs to be appropriately managed. Not only will it save businesses money in the short and longer term, but it will also significantly support employee engagement and productivity. As an employer, you need to think about how you respond when people need time off work. Employees need to think about how they are performing, managing their health, reacting when not well, and the impact of their decisions on those around them.

It is time to dust off your absenteeism policy and implement or breathe life back into your Health and Wellbeing program. If presenteeism isn't something that you are managing or prioritising, it needs to be. Adelaide Workplace Mediation can work with your business and train management to address your workplace culture, ensuring that your staff stay healthier and more motivated long term.

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