At a glance, the difference between workplace absenteeism and presentism can seem straightforward. In terms of definition, absenteeism in the workplace refers to the number of days, either partial or in full, an employee spends physically absent from work. Workplace presenteeism refers to the ways an employee might be performing at a lower capacity, due to personal issues, even though they are physically present at work.
When it comes to loss of productivity in the workplace however, the difference between absenteeism and presenteeism has typically received less attention. Absenteeism is an obvious problem that is easy to quantify. Presenteeism can be a vague and hard to gauge phenomenon, though have the same if not greater impact on business productivity as absenteeism. In light of this the difference between the two becomes an important distinction to make, so that it can pave the way to build solutions.
Defining Workplace Presenteeism
Workplace presenteeism has garnered greater attention in recent years. It is hard to pinpoint when, or what the catalyst was, but somewhere in the last couple of decades, emphasis seems to have shifted from quantity of work to the quality of work, and to a recognition that a happy, healthy employee is a more productive one. Out of this has evolved the definition of workplace presenteeism, the awareness that just because an employee is present, does not mean they will be productive.
Presenteeism brings our humanity to the forefront of the discussion on the workplace. It is the acknowledgement that people are affected by other aspects of their lives, such as physical and mental health, family events, personal issues, and psychological stress. And that it is hard for employees to disassociate themselves from these issues despite the workload in front of them.
In recognising and defining this issue, businesses are starting to explore ways in which they can improve employee well-being and satisfaction, and ultimately productivity.
Is Workplace Presenteeism More Costly to Business Than Absenteeism?
The impact of absenteeism in a business is usually immediate and more easily quantifiable. The costs of an absent employee are obvious, from paying overtime to other staff absorbing the absentee’s workload, to the costs of training others, to business lost from decreased product or service quality. Because of the high impact of absenteeism, it is common practice for employers to factor it into their daily business planning, so as to mitigate potential business loss from it.
In contrast, less attention has typically been given to workplace presenteeism, though some studies have found it to be on the rise. A survey of well-being at work in the UK, conducted in 2020, found that absenteeism had actually dropped to its lowest in 20 years, but workplace presenteeism had risen. The study cited stress as a major contributor. Employees expressed that mounting pressure and high workloads kept them going in to work even when they weren’t well.
In addition to an uptake of presenteeism, a growing number of studies are finding that it has a greater impact on business productivity than absenteeism. Another study conducted in 2020 found that workplace absenteeism and presenteeism accounted for 63 unproductive hours in a month per affected employee, and of the companies surveyed, workplace presenteeism accounted for 56% of this. A review of studies conducted by Harvard Business Review found that in 2004, the cost of presenteeism to US businesses was estimated to be at $150 billion USD per year. Losses from presenteeism were estimated to be three times greater than that of absenteeism.
Reducing Workplace Presenteeism
The impact of absenteeism on business continuity pales somewhat when compared to the suspected impact of presenteeism. In fact, it almost makes absenteeism look like a solution. Giving someone a little time off in the short run, to deal with their personal lives, might just make them more productive in the long run. However, giving time off to everyone is not always a viable solution, or sometimes even an option, but there are other ways to help reduce presenteeism.
There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution when it comes to presenteeism, as what productivity looks like, and how it is affected, can vary greatly from one business to another. The steps in identifying it however, and in developing a tailormade solution, do apply to most business models.
- Identify the problem in the workplace. Employees may have individual issues that impact them personally, or are collectively affected by workplace practices, cultures, or events. Conducting an employee satisfaction survey and encouraging dialogue will help shine a light on some of the issues requiring attention. Solutions can then be better developed and targeted to address these issues, whether on an individual level or throughout the workplace.
- Emphasise and educate on the importance of personal health and well-being. Making personal health and well-being a priority as part of the workplace culture can help facilitate it as a priority on an individual level. With management highlighting its importance and incorporating discussions of wellness into meetings, and factoring it into policies and procedures, employees are likely to feel more open about addressing it and to let go of stigmas the engender unhealthy working habits.
- Incorporate effective wellness programs, events, and solutions into the workplace. Implementing tangible and practical programs and events associated with wellness can further reinforce a workplace culture that prioritises it. These of course need to be well thought out and tailormade to address the issues pervasive and unique to a workplace.
Understanding presenteeism is important. It highlights a growing issue that is hard to define and combat. Focusing on it and possible solutions are key to reducing presenteeism in the workplace and reducing its significant impact on business productivity.