Presenteeism is a growing concern for managers and HR across the world. Organizations should try and tackle this issue and help the employees avoid the mental and physical effects of not taking sick leave when needed.

What is presenteeism at work?

Presenteeism is the act of showing up for work even when we are ill and not focused on work. Therefore, we cannot perform our job to the best of our ability. As you can imagine, this can cause a great effect on performance and productivity.

Sounds familiar, right? We’ve all had a splitting headache at a certain point in time and had to drag ourselves to work. You see, the old-fashioned HR system measured success based on attendance, but today, we all know better.

There are many reasons why presenteeism is bad for business, so here are a few:

  • A decline in productivity since sick employees won’t be able to work to the best of their abilities;
  • Health and safety risks if employees work with heavy machinery when they are unfit to do so;
  • Sick employees can pass on germs to others and make the workplace even more unproductive.

And what about the employees themselves? It can have a long-term effect on their wellbeing and health, especially mental health. Going to work when ill could take its toll over time. In addition, most employees would not take sick leave for mental illness. This is due to the taboo revolving around health problems.

The difference between presenteeism, absenteeism, and leaveism

People tend to confuse presenteeism with absenteeism or leaveism, but they are quite different. Absenteeism refers to the act of not coming to work even though you are fine. This could lead to reduced productivity, high administration and labor costs, and poor morale among colleagues.

Leaveism is the act of working when you are on holiday or after working hours. Employees would misuse annual leaves, rest days, or flextime to be at the top of their game while dealing with the responsibilities around their house.

Even though most people are aware of absenteeism and leaveism, historically, the presenteeism issue has been paid less attention to.

Causes of presenteeism

Before we try to tackle presenteeism, we need to get to the root of the problem. Many believe that the culture of staying late and doing overtime is the cause of presenteeism. When people believe that this is what is expected of them, they try to be seen to succeed. If this is the case, you probably wonder why presenteeism is related to poor productivity when people are working more hours? I mentioned this earlier. In the past, it was believed that productivity is connected to attendance. However, today we are aware that if we sit in front of the computer it doesn’t mean we are actually doing the work, or if we are working that doesn’t mean it is actually productive work. Now, don’t get the wrong idea. It’s not that people want to stay in front of the screen the entire day. The thing is, they think they have to. If we have a culture where visibility is related to productivity and efficiency, then the employees will try to prove themselves just by being there.

Even though this is the main cause, there are still other factors that can cause presenteeism, depending on the workplace and business. These are just a few:

  • Little to no paid sick days
  • Job insecurity
  • Understaffing
  • Unrealistic expectations from the employer
  • Time pressure
  • Harassment for taking a sick leave
  • Huge workload

Addressing presenteeism

Now that we know what can be the cause of presenteeism, it is time to learn how to handle it. These are a few solutions that might help:

Problem Recognition

The first step to resolving any problem is to recognize it. When it comes to presenteeism, employers are usually not aware of the damage and loss it may cause. If you own a business, you should make your managers aware of this issue and its cost.

Absence policy Improvement

If the absence policy isn’t handled right, it may cause a rise in presenteeism, especially if the employees experience certain financial difficulties. If we want to change the culture of insecurity and uncertainty that will cause presenteeism, we need to have a kinder approach towards the absence policies.

Workload Reduction

If an employee feels that no one could cover their work, they might feel pressure to be present all the time. One way of dealing with this is to make sure the organization has enough staff to deal with the work.

Being an example

If you are an employer who doesn’t feel well, stay home. If you think you should be available, do it from the comfort of your home and use your computer or phone. Do not spread germs to others.

Letting your employees go home

If you send your sick employees home, you will discourage them from coming in when they feel unwell. This will make them think that they shouldn’t go to work when they are ill. In today’s world, they can stay in and work from home if they are capable of doing so.

Taking disciplinary action

This is a bit strict, but sometimes unfortunately necessary. For example, if a worker at a store goes to work ill and infects the customers, it can have a serious impact on your overall company. So sometimes, if protection of the public is essential, you may want to take disciplinary actions towards the employees who violated the company policy.

Providing paid sick leave

This is a must. If you haven’t done this already, then it’s time to consider doing so. This would help you with higher productivity, reduced employee turnover, and it would reduce the spread of germs at the office.

Encouraging healthy living

If you are an employee, having a healthier lifestyle might inspire others. Not just that, this can be implemented in the company culture itself. Encouraging to take the stairs instead of the elevators, paid gym membership cards would also do the trick, sports challenges as well.

Examining the wellbeing program of your company

Having a strategic policy that will focus on financial, mental, and physical stressors and give support, would help to reduce the effect of presenteeism. Counseling or financial management could combat the impact of long-term conditions. Access to consultations for mental health problems would boost people’s productivity.

Recognizing the symptoms

Employees with health problems, especially the ones struggling with mental issues, don’t usually feel encouraged to disclose them in front of their employers. In addition, employers are not usually trained to support them. It is important that you as an employer or better yet, your managers, be trained and educated to notice the signals when employees deal with a lot of stress or mental health problems.


An employee coming to work while sick as a dog is no longer acceptable. The costs of such actions are a drain on the financial wellbeing of the company. Employers should focus on making an effort to create a workspace with highly functional and healthy employees. This will enable the company to achieve the goals for profit and productivity and to foster a healthy working environment for the employees. Making changes in trainings and addressing the issues in the workplace will create a healthier and more motivated workforce in the long run.

Making health a priority is worth it for both the organizations and the people.

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