The difficulty of detecting presenteeism and how to address the issue before it costs your business.

Five Steps to Addressing the Scourge of Presenteeism

Coined in the mid-‘90s by psychologist, Cary Cooper (Paul D. Hooper, Presenteeism, white paper CIDM Corp, 2012), presenteeism is not only more difficult to identify and manage than absenteeism, there is some suggestion that its cost to the economy is far more significant.

In fact, in 2007, Medibank Private commissioned an independent study into the cost of presenteeism to the Australian workforce. The resulting figure – an astounding $25.7 billion – was nearly four times the cost of absenteeism. That number had risen to $34.1 billion in a 2011 study.

Presenteeism itself can be hard to define. It may relate to:

  • Sick employees at work but unproductive (and maybe passing on their lurgies)
  • People that put in long hours, but are not working all the time (on the internet, attending to personal business, socialising, etc)
  • Employees dissatisfied with work who are just warming the seat
  • People with chronic physical or mental illnesses, which may or may not have been caused – or exacerbated – by work.

Unfortunately, the hidden nature of presenteeism can make it hard for employers to combat. That, coupled with the variety of causes and effects of presenteeism (quality, quantity – or both – of   work), it’s unrealistic to think a standard plan can apply to all. Instead, employers need to consider each situation and perhaps employ the following to address the issue:

  1. Recognise the problem: Like any workplace issue, identifying and measuring presenteeism is the first place to address it. An anonymous health and wellbeing questionnaire, such as surveys from the Black Dog Institute can set a benchmark and, if circulated annually (or every couple of years) it can measure the success of any program your company has implemented to tackle presenteeism.
  2. Recognise the effect of other workplace policies: If, for example, your workplace has a low-tolerance for absenteeism, then presenteeism is likely to be a problem. Workers, afraid of having their pay docked – or worse – will continue to drag themselves in each day. Their illness (and attitude) can be contagious and affect the entire workplace, especially in a small team. If your survey shows presenteeism to be a major issue, then perhaps it is time to take a good look at your organisational culture.
  3. Preventing is better that cure: Instead of operating on an “absence management” basis, aim for a “health management” one. Workplace health and wellbeing programs and a company-wide EAP (employee assistance program) may seem an unnecessary expense – but not having them could prove far more costly.
  4. Keep work in perspective: Supervisors and managers can help by supporting work-life balance initiatives such as flexitime, telecommuting, time off for medical appointments, carer’s leave etc. Proposed further changes to the Fair Work Act will give more employees the right to request flexible working arrangements. While these are not possible in all workplaces, they should not be discounted offhand as unreasonable or unworkable. If, perhaps staff are coming in to work because of strict deadlines, consider how “strict” the deadlines actually are, and whether they can be done from home, or by another staff member. Naturally, supervisors and managers need to pay regular attention to performance and productivity, and address issues as they arise – rather than waiting for the regularly ‘yearly’ one-on-one.
  5. Manage people out: Sometimes, the best thing an employer can do for a dissatisfied staff member is to help them find work that better suits their situation and mindset. This answer is not for all situations – discrimination provisions might cover chronic illness, for example – but if the problem is attitude due to a poor job fit, then there is no better solution.

While losses due to absenteeism can be measured directly through sick leave days lost, presenteeism losses are harder to detect, and can be both direct and indirect. For example they may include: declining productivity; effects on other employees who are “carrying” their unproductive colleague; missed deadlines and dissatisfied clients; the spread of a temporary illness (or even contagious negativity).

What is clear is that presenteeism is a major problem for Australian workplaces and businesses need to understand and address the issue before it is too late.

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