The Real Costs and Causes of Presenteeism

The impact of presenteeism on the workplace

The 3 Different Types of Presenteeism

“Yeah, I just stare at my desk; but it looks like I’m working. I do that for probably another hour after lunch, too. I’d say in a given week I probably only do about fifteen minutes of real, actual, work.” — Peter Gibbons

Peter, from the definitive film on cube culture, Office Space, is the embodiment of “presenteeism.” We’ve all known, or been, the seemingly dedicated employee who is always at their desk, looking busy for the boss, but not really doing much of anything. This is a standard joke in the workplace, and we often put the blame on the employee. But presenteeism is an indicator of a serious problem within a company culture. First, let’s look at three different types of presenteeism.

1. Present When Sick There are a few reasons why employees will come into the office even though they’re ill. They may not have sick days available and they may not get paid for time off. Another factor that we see more often is the employee feels pressure to be present, or else he’ll look like a slacker. There’s a body of research about the costs of coming to work while sick, not only to the company in a loss of productivity, but the health consequences to the employee, including future sick leave, the risks of exhaustion, and more.

2. Always Present Workaholism and presenteeism blend in this definition. The “Always Present” employee arrives early, stays late, sacrifices family and a personal life for work, and basically puts everyone else to shame by being so dedicated to the company. This person may appear loyal and dedicated, but is actually staying at work beyond the time necessary for effective performance. Perhaps the employee feels like she’ll get the promotion by being present. There could be peer-pressure within the team to look dedicated and stay late; never leave before the boss does. Whatever the reason may be, no one is looking at results, just time and presence.

3. Present and Passing Peter Gibbons falls into this third category. He knows he has to be at his desk at a certain time. He knows he has to look busy for the boss. He knows that all he really needs to do to keep his job is just show up. Maybe Peter is lazy. OR, maybe Peter lacks motivation because he has an awful boss who doesn’t know how to manage effectively. Presenteeism in this case has major consequences for team morale, productivity, and waste. What does Peter need from his manager that he’s not getting?

What’s the Cure?

Many companies are so focused on the costs of absenteeism that they don’t stop to think about the costs, and more importantly the root causes, of presenteeism. All of the above scenarios cost a company money, time, and resources. Don’t use band-aids to fix the problem; get to the root of it. The true causes of presenteeism point to the cure. Ask yourself these questions:

Measurable results: Are you, as an employee or manager, focused on getting results? Are you meeting goals? Is it clear to everyone that the only thing that matters is performance, not presence?

Don’t obsess over time: Is your company fixated with the movements and whereabouts of its employees? Is there a punishment for Mr. Smith when he’s 15 minutes late, even when he’s getting great results? Is there an implicit reward for appearing loyal and busy by staying at your desk past 6 pm? OR, are you given the freedom to accomplish goals efficiently, in your own way and on your own schedule?

Support system: Do your co-workers gossip about you around the water cooler for missing a day, or for taking all your vacation time? OR, do you feel trusted and respected at work? Are you motivated as a team to get amazing results for your clients?

What do you think? Do you see this phenomenon in your workplace? How do you deal with presenteeism?


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Jody Thompson

Jody Thompson, along with her partner Cali Ressler, is the Founder of CultureRx and co-creator of the Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE). Jody is a nationally recognized keynote speaker and bestselling author. She has been featured on the covers of BusinessWeek, Workforce Management Magazine, HR Magazine, Hybrid Mom Magazine, HR Executive Magazine, and the New York Times. You can find her on Linkedin.

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