Presenteeism: the hidden productivity killer

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Absenteeism may dominate research when it comes to impact on productivity, however experts say a much bigger problem is presenteeism – when an employee comes to work in ill health and does not work at full capacity.

And according to Dr Laura Kirby, Principal Consultant Psychologist of CommuniCorp Group, it's on the rise.

“Presenteeism is appearing to become more common, and is on an escalating trend,” she told HRM Online.

“It’s difficult to determine whether workplaces ignore presenteeism, or whether it’s actually a case of workplaces not detecting that it’s a problem. Businesses need to be educated further about presenteeism and how to implement measures to ensure it doesn’t become an issue. Workplace leaders, including HR and WHS employees, should be equipped with more knowledge and skills around identifying and mitigating issues associated with presenteeism.”

Kirby agrees that presenteeism is difficult to detect, but key signs employers should look for, at the individual level, include:
  • employees being slower to complete tasks, making more mistakes and needing to repeat tasks;
  • employees not completing tasks to their usual high standard;
  • employees working unnecessary long hours;
  • reduced engagement or job satisfaction;
  • worsening health (physical and/or psychological) and longer recovery time;
  • employees not fulfilling all of the requirements of their role or performance issues.
Presenteeism can also be an indicator that a workplace or a business may not be psychologically healthy, which could result in substantial costs.

“In 2009/10 the cost of presenteeism to the Australian economy was $34.1 billion (according to the 2011 Medibank sick at work report). On average 6.5 working days of productivity are lost per employee annually as a result of presenteeism,” Kirby said. 

Indicators that a business may not be psychologically healthy include: increased interpersonal conflict; reduced team cohesion; increased psychological injury claims and rates; increased incivility amongst staff; escalated bullying/grievance reports and issues and poor engagement reports.

“One of the main factors contributing to employees coming to work when they are unfit to do so is work-related stress and perceived pressure to attend work – which in an organisational climate of “doing more than less” that we’re seeing currently, I’d suggest this is going to be an ongoing issue with significant short and long term impacts. Present estimates indicate that by 2050, the total cost of presenteeism will increase to $35.8 billion.”

The best way to address presenteeism is to implement preventative measures to create and maintain a psychologically safe and healthy workplace according to Kirby.

“This doesn’t mean implementing 'feel good activities' around wellbeing but rather looking at strategic and practical ways to tackle root cause issues around presenteeism, at different business unit levels,” she explained.

“This may include implementing policies/practices that support psychological wellbeing in the workplace, and encourage staff to take time off, or more importantly seek professional help, if they are unwell; it may also look at person-job fit, to ensure this is not exacerbating work-related stress. Importantly, there is an increasing trend for organisations to equip their HR, WHS and People Leader staff with the capabilities to identify and respond to factors that contribute to workplace psychological health and safety risks, so that we are intervening early and potentially preventing issues around presenteeism.”

Other steps businesses can consider to address the problem include:
  • recognise when there is a problem with presenteeism and openly communicate the importance of providing a psychologically safe and healthy workplace;
  • investigate and understand what kind of psychological health and safety issues are affecting employees, which may differ across teams and divisions;
  • develop strategies to mitigate, reduce and prevent these root cause issues;
  • provide all levels of staff with the requisite capabilities to identify and address issues and concerns around presenteeism; this includes supporting staff to be proactive in managing their health and to seek professional help to address health issues, particularly psychological health issues, as well as providing staff with an understanding of the available workplace supports
Ultimately, this will improve productivity, and in the long-term, generate a positive impact on businesses bottom line, along with the many aspirational benefits of providing a psychologically safe and healthy workplace,” Kirby said.

Read more:
Time to get serious about presenteeism
Ergonomics of trust: Does your office space foster productivity?

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