The Problem with Presenteeism

Posted on 10th May 2017

As an HR Professional, in nearly every organisation I have worked in the topic of absenteeism and what to do about it is one that is often discussed and worked on. Many businesses have absence levels as one of their key measurements as it has a direct effect on the bottom line.

There is however, an ever increasing threat that can slow down work, reduce productivity and sap employee energy. This new threat is presenteeism. The aim of this article is to look at what it is, how it affects productivity and how to tackle it.

  1. What is presenteeism?

Presenteeism can be defined as the practice of coming to work despite illness, injury or other distress, often resulting in reduced productivity or a loss of workplace productivity resulting from employee health problems and/or personal issues. Even though the employee is physically present at work, because they are experiencing problems (which can be many and varied, including, allergies, stress, family problems etc.) they are unable to fully perform their duties and are more likely to make mistakes in the work they do perform.

In a 2004 study of the problem, the Harvard Business Review noted that presenteeism is not to be confused with malingering (pretending to be ill to avoid work) or just deliberately putting off duties at work, and should be considered a particular condition of being unable to perform at the highest level due to real physical or mental health challenges.

Unlike absenteeism, presenteeism is more difficult to identify, and also has potentially hard-to-track, far reaching consequences for the business.

  1. What are the negative impacts of presenteeism

Some studies have shown that the cost of presenteeism can be as high as 7.5 times that of absenteeism, and in the cases of employees with some stress related issues (high blood pressure, migraines, heart disease etc.) as much as 15 times greater. Yet, unlike in the case of absenteeism, these losses are much harder to identify because it’s impossible to tell with a glance which employees are sitting at their desks producing high quality work and solving problems, and which ones are muddling through in the face of physical or mental problems that prevent them from working at their full capacity.

  1. So what can you do about it?

As we’ve seen, presenteeism is harder to see than absenteeism and therefore harder to tackle, but as we’ve also seen, if you do, it can give any business a clear competitive advantage.

Research has shown that targeted wellbeing investments can pay off, especially those covering areas like neck pain, back pain, fatigue and slight depression, which are among those with high presenteeism levels.

Look at ways people can work from home or can work flexibly and create a culture where people are encouraged to look after themselves and others and not be afraid of being honest if they are not up to coming into work and don’t feel pressurised to coming in when they don’t feel well. Include stress management and mental health programmes in any wellness programmes as this can help prevent presenteeism in a pro-active and cost effective way.

  1. Stop presenteeism before it starts

This is really down the culture and the behaviours of Managers and employees. Any business serious about preventing presenteeism needs to look at themselves and examine the culture and structures which unintentionally may be contributing to it. Managers must provide assistance to employees to help them make healthier choices for themselves for the good of everyone at the office.


Emma Wynne Character
Written by:
Emma Wynne
Managing Director