Presenteeism: The surprising problem that’s stealing your employees’ productivity

February 23, 2015

Everyone knows the impact of employee absenteeism on the workplace. But there is an increasingly common threat that may be even more dangerous to your company culture. It’s called presenteeism.

Like a slippery, undetected disease invading your office, it slinks through your employee ranks, slowing down work, stealing productivity and sucking up employee happiness. This post aims to help HR leaders learn what they need to know about this destructive phenomenon—what it is, how it affects productivity, and how to address it head on.


What is presenteeism?

Presenteeism is defined as the practice of coming to work despite illness, injury or other distress, often resulting in reduced productivity. Investopedia defines it further as 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 such as arthritis, allergies, family illness or stress, they are unable to fully perform their work 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 to avoid work) or just slacking off (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 its close relation, absenteeism, presenteeism is more difficult to identify, and also has insidious, hard-to-track far-reaching consequences for the affected company.


What are the negative impacts of presenteeism?

According to the HBR study, the cost of lost productivity due to presenteeism reaches over $150 billion dollars per year. A study by Statistics Canada indicated that lost productivity from presenteeism was 7.5 times greater than productivity loss from absenteeism. For some stress related issues such as heart disease, hypertension, migraines, and back pain, the ratio increased to 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.

Sadly, the low-grade illnesses and mental challenges that employees bring with them to work–such as chronic pain, gastrointestinal problems, migraines, anxiety or depression–are invisible to employers and grow steadily worse over years without treatment. These and other common problems at the root of presenteeism are often only noticed by co-workers or employers once they reach serious proportions, requiring time off or medical care to address. The later-stage care itself will likely be expensive, and the high cost of the months or years of lost productivity due to chronic issues often remains under the radar.


Ready to combat presenteeism in your workplace?

While absenteeism has received a lot of study and attention in the realm of management science, the study of presenteeism is much newer, only having entered the business lexicon around 2000. Because of its relative newness, employers may be less willing or able to examine this phenomenon and its harmful effects on their businesses. A joint study conducted by the Benfield Group and the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that only 14% of companies[PDF] are even studying or addressing presenteeism.

That’s a ray of hope for employers hoping to take on the problem of presenteeism. It reveals a chance to gain a distinct competitive advantage by being one of the highly proactive companies to address the problem head on.

Presenteeism springs from a wide variety of small causes, both physical (like asthma, migraines, allergies) and mental (like depression, anxiety and insomnia), and many that are out of employers’ control (like divorce or other family-related personal issues). Because of this, it pays for employers to first examine where they can have the most impact, then make targeted investments in employee health and wellbeing. The good news is that there is a lot that you as an HR professional can do to help your employees handle the many small challenges that lead to presenteeism, before they get out of hand.

In our next post about Presenteeism, we’ll talk about targeted health and wellness investments pay off. Click here for part 2.

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