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Presenteeism: what it is and what to do about it

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If you’ve been in HR for any amount of time, you’re aware of the myriad problems associated with employee absenteeism, especially now that companies are offering more flexible time-off policies. When too many people take too many days off, company productivity can take a serious hit, and HR managers often bear the brunt of having difficult conversations about how much time off an employee is allowed to take before being subject to disciplinary action.

But the opposite of absenteeism— a phenomenon called presenteeism— can be just as bad for the health of a company. In an office with a presenteeism problem, employees may be physically present, but they’re not being fully productive. Sometimes this is because of an illness or some other serious personal distress, and sometimes it’s just good old-fashioned burnout. 

Whatever the cause for each individual, widespread presenteeism can take a serious toll on productivity, especially where illness is involved. Employees who come to work sick instead of getting medical care or resting at home may take longer to recover; this means their work quality and quantity are affected for a longer period of time than if they’d just taken time off to get well. Worse, if their illness is communicable, they may take colleagues down with them, resulting in an even bigger problem. 

What makes an employee show up for work when they should take the day off? The reason most likely has something to do with company culture. Presenteeism usually arises from the unspoken idea that if your boss can see you at your computer working, you’re a good employee. Counteracting that mindset requires intentional shifts, starting with company leadership. Here are some steps HR managers, supervisors, and executives can take to help tackle the problem of presenteeism in the workforce: 

Encourage employees to use their days off

Whether your company has a paid time-off (PTO) policy or a more traditional sick day/vacation day setup, it’s important for managers to encourage employees to take advantage of their days off. Set the expectation that employees should stay home or go to the doctor if they’re feeling under the weather, and then get managers to actually model it. Like most aspects of company culture, this one starts from the top; when executives and managers take sick or personal days, the rest of the company is likely to follow suit. 

To help move the needle a little further, you may want to consider implementing a partial “use it or lose it” policy for time off. If only a few personal days roll over to the next year, employees won’t feel the need to bank them as long as they can, and will be more likely to take time off when they need a day to rest or handle personal matters. 

Emphasize preventive care benefits

As the saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Encouraging employees to be proactive about their health can help prevent them from coming to work sick. For any employees who take advantage of employer-sponsored healthcare, it may be useful to have regular reminders of what benefits are available to them. Most health insurance plans are required to cover the cost of preventive medicine (such as annual checkups, flu shots, and other vaccinations), but it’s possible that your employees aren’t aware that they’re entitled to these benefits. 

In addition to reminding employees what healthcare benefits are available to them at low or no cost, make sure it’s an easy and positive experience for them to take a few hours off in the middle of the day to visit a doctor. The less friction employees face when trying to make responsible decisions about their health, the more likely they are to be proactive in taking care of themselves. 

Allow more flexible work arrangements

Among numerous other benefits, giving your employees the option to work from home can help prevent a major dip in productivity from presenteeism. Occasionally, an employee may feel up to getting a little bit of work done before going back to bed for more rest. Others may have some personal matters to attend to, but they might not need the whole day to do it. By allowing them the option to get even a little bit of work done on their own time from the comfort of their homes, you can provide employees with a middle ground between dragging themselves into the office (where they’ll be far less productive than usual) and taking a whole day away from their duties. 

Making a shift

Changing the way personal time is treated in your workplace is not a one-day process. HR managers may need to get buy-in from leadership in order to make a dent in a presenteeism problem. But by empowering your employees to take care of their health and other personal matters, you’ll be much more likely to get their best work— not just their physical presence—when they’re in the office.