The problem with presenteeism

Man sneezing into hand ill and shaking hands with womanPublic and media scrutiny over the effects of presenteeism in the workplace has grown significantly in the last few years. Presenteeism is a real problem and it diminishes workplace satisfaction and efficiency. Read our brief guide below to learn more about what presenteeism is and how you can minimise its effects in your workplace.

What is presenteeism?

We have all heard of absenteeism, but you could not be faulted for not knowing what presenteeism is. Absenteeism is when an employee is absent from work due to illness; presenteeism on the other hand is when an employee is present in the workplace, but still suffering from the illness. The illness can be either a physical illness, or a mental health illness.

We have all pushed ourselves to come to work when we were feeling ill – and we all know just how painful that day is. A day in the workplace when you should be resting at home means that you are practically counting down the seconds till the end of your shift, buried in used tissues, and exhausted.

In the past, it was thought that showing up to work when you clearly should be resting at home was a sign of your dedication to your career and colleagues. However, it is starting to become more and more clear that it is actually better for companies when their ill workers stay home, instead of dragging themselves to work.

Cost to businesses

When you are feeling ill, you are more likely to make mistakes and overlook important details. Also, when you are sick and contagious, you can infect your colleagues and harm overall workplace productivity. These may seem like minor concerns, but reports suggest that presenteeism is actually one of the most pressing threats to UK workplace productivity.

It has been estimated that in the US, more than $150bn per year is lost to presenteeism and a number of studies have concluded that presenteeism is actually more costly to employers than absenteeism and disability.

The issue extends to mental health as individuals who have mental health problems may require more flexible working arrangements and need to take time off. A study by the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute found that absence from work as a result of mental health problems cost £8bn with an additional £1bn lost for those individuals who are self-employed.


Presenteeism is caused by a number of factors. When a company has a strict leave policy, it can be difficult for workers to request time off. They may have already used their sick days or, in a highly pressurised environment, may feel that they cannot be seen taking a sick day because it will reflect poorly on them and their standing in the workplace.

A study by CIPD, the Chartered Institute of Personal Development, found that presenteeism is more likely to occur in workplaces where long hours are expected from workers and where the company’s demands are viewed as more important than the needs of the individual workers themselves.

Why businesses should care

Alongside the revenue and productivity losses which presenteeism brings, there are other reasons to care about presenteeism. A company that values employee well-being and health will garner more respect and loyalty from its workers. Increasingly, workers are expecting more flexible working arrangements and are looking for companies that place value on their employees. Companies that take steps to avoid presenteeism in the workplace will both avoid the profit and efficiency losses of presenteeism and gain the respect of employees.

Tackling presenteeism

Below are a few of the steps that companies can take to reduce presenteeism in the workplace:
1. Re-examine company policies – one of the first steps a company can take is to reassess their company policies around sick leave and absences. Strict, punitive sick leave encourages employees to come to work – even when they really should be at home.
2. Company culture check – employees are more likely to come to work when they are ill if they feel like they have to and their reputation as a hard worker is at stake. The pressure to head into work when ill can be diminished by emphasising that sick employees need to stay home.
3. Be observant – employees, especially those with mental health problems, may not feel like they are able to communicate their health needs to their managers. It is important to properly train managers to support employees with health issues so that they are aware when an employee begins to show signs that he or she may need some time off.

These are just a few ways to reduce presenteeism in the workplace. It is important to also begin a dialogue with the workers and managers in the workplace so that you can learn more about how best to shape your company policies and adjust your workplace culture to minimise presenteeism.

Disclaimer: The information provided through Legislation Watch is for general guidance only and is not legal advice. Legislation Watch is not a substitute for Health and Safety consultancy. You should seek independent advice about any legal matter.

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